By Steve Walsh
Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia Polo team once again hosted the 2017 U.S. Military Polo Championships October 6-8. Similar to previous years, the intense pace of U.S. Military operations worldwide limited the active duty and active reserve participation. The cup, named after the famous Marine General, Lt-Gen Lewis B “Chesty” Puller, one of the most highly decorated Marines with five Navy Crosses (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor in rank for valor), one Army Distinguished Service Cross and multiple other awards for heroism in Latin America, WW-II and Korea. Puller was a serious horseman and polo player and captained the U.S. Marine team while stationed in Peking (now Beijing, China) in the mid-1930s. Comparable to many other military officers of that time, Puller felt the speed at which a player is required to react under constantly changing conditions while playing polo translated directly to making them more effective on the battlefield.
Playing for the U.S. Navy team were Commander Karl Hilberg, USN (ret), LCDR Andrea Logan USN and LTjg. Vicky Frederichs, USN. Frederichs, former captain of the UVA women’s, with two national championships to her credit was fortunate to play given her heavy schedule at the Navy’s elite nuclear power school. Andrea Logan, a Navy JAG assigned to the Pentagon was also able break away from her busy schedule to play, but had to juggle her case load to do so. Karl Hilberg, a veteran surface warfare officer, former ship’s captain and co-chair of the USPA Armed Forces Committee, having retired from active service a few years past had the most flexibility and led the team.
The Air Force team was the same as last year’s lineup with former Sergeant and former USPA CEO Peter Rizzo, former Sergeant Rob Phipps and former pilot, 2nd Lt Jonathan Burrows rounding out the airmen.
For the Army team, it was the return of Major Mark Gillespie, USA (ret) and former paratrooper Sergeant Paul Knapp. New this year was former Sergeant Larry Williams from the Virginia Beach Polo Club in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Williams, a veteran of military intelligence work in the Pacific provided a new dimension to the Army team.
The Marines fielded their strongest team to date with Jake Flournoy, former team captain of the UVA men’s team, a former Marine Captain and current USPA Southeast Circuit Governor. The team saw the return of Sergeant Chris Jones, USMCR. An active Marine reservist, Jones drills with a combat logistics battalion based out of Dallas, Texas. Rounding out the Marine team was Captain Shannon McGraw, USMC (ret). A former Marine JAG officer, Mcgraw has been playing at the Santa Barbara Polo Club in Carpinteria, California, for the past few years.
The draw had the Marines playing the Navy for the first match. Jones and Flournoy quickly established control over the eager but under gunned Navy team. The end of the first chukker had the Marines up by two goals. At the start of the second chukker the Marines caught fire finishing the first half out in front 8-2. The third period saw a bit of a recovery of the Navy, but the Marines remained strong with the Marines victorious 11-5 advancing to the final.
Army and Air Force faced off in an exciting second match. Knapp and Rizzo, both extremely good arena players and consummate horsemen anchored their respective teams. The first half saw the Army staying out in front by a goal or two, principally on the play of Knapp and his ability to keep control of the ball and dribble through a field of defenders. Army ended on top at the end of the first half 7-3. The second half was equally interesting with the Air Force team closing the gap to one in the third chukker. However, in the end, the Army proved too much and the Air Force fell to the Army 9-8.
On the following day, an introduction to polo clinic was held for active duty military members with eight men and women attending. Participating were members of the Army’s Elite Caisson Platoon from Ft. Myer, Virginia, members of the Navy’s Nuclear Power School and Air Force Logistic personnel, to name a few. All got instruction with foot mallets, as well as on the wooden horse and finally mounted in the arena with other military players. All players kept the ball moving during a short scrimmage at the walk and trot. After four short hours all the participants were hooked, and expressed a strong desire to continue with their polo training.
Sunday morning saw the Air Force, led by Rizzo defeat the Navy team, led by Hilberg, 16-11 in the consolation match. Navy, despite hard play by Frederichs and Hilberg were unable to overcome the masterful mallet work of Rizzo and scoring prowess of Phipps.
The final championship game matched the Marines against the Army and proved, as expected, the toughest contest of the tournament. With a handicap advantage of two goals, the Marines, led by Flournoy quickly established a lead with a 2-point strike by Flournoy after only two minutes of play. Jones, playing the best polo of his young career, according to many watching, also added to the score. At the end of the first half, the Marines were ahead 13-5. McGraw continued to prove her mettle by riding off the Army opponents and turning quickly for passes from Jones and Flournoy.
After switching mounts at halftime, the Army came out smoking with Knapp and Gillespie both adding a goal in the third chukker. However, that effort was matched and then some by the long range scoring of both Flournoy and Jones, who together added four more goals for the Marines, making the score 17-7 at the start of the final chukker. While the final chukker saw the Army add two more goals, it was the Marines who continued to score, with McGraw adding a goal, Jones adding two and team captain Flournoy adding the final goal, winning the match 21-9.
Overall the matches saw a continuing improvement in the level of play from the previous year. The Virginia Polo Center and its polo director Lou Lopez showcased first-class facilities and superb strings of horses to create a truly memorable event for all who participated.