Greenville held on for a nail-biting 9-8 win over Charlotte to repeat their 2018 Battle For The Carolinas win at Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) at Mill Spring, North Carolina, playing in front of a packed and energetic crowd. Assuming an early lead due to the efforts of Felipe Viana*, Jared Sheldon* and Matt Coppola*, Greenville was able to hold off a strong offensive run by Charlotte in the fourth chukker to defend their title. Charlotte was represented by Trevor Niznik, Mike Azzaro, and Patrick Uretz*, a formidable trio to challenge the defending champions. The last two chukkers had fans on the edge of their seats as Greenville secured the win, taking home the top prize of $21,000.
Most Valuable Player, Felipe Viana, commented that Greenville “clicked right away,” despite not having all played in the famed arena prior to the match. “I think we all felt very comfortable playing with each other. We started with a strong defense and then were able to attack pretty quickly,” Viana said. “We kept a positive attitude, and we had a great time out there. We got lucky as well – you have to have luck on your side in this sport. We won by one goal, and these games are always going to be very tight.”
Felipe Viana leans out for a neckshot.
Viana, a giant in the sport coming back to arena polo after a two-year hiatus, was thrilled to play in Tryon Stadium for the first time. “This is my first time in Tryon – it’s a blast, and it’s amazing. It’s awesome to see the sport [get this kind of exposure] and everyone that plays polo will agree with that,” Viana said. “We [the players] are selected to put on a good show and to be ambassadors of the sport, and we thank the people who allowed us to do this tonight, and the people who brought horses for some of us to borrow. It’s great to put our names out there, and the prize money is great, too. We all live off the sport, so that’s an extra incentive!”
Greenville’s Matt Coppola was also a first-time Gladiator Polo™ competitor at TIEC. “It was my first time here, and the fans were so into the game. The venue is beyond amazing, and all around it was just a lot of fun,” Coppola said. “I’m really happy that I got the opportunity to come! We were just trying to play open polo, meaning hit it [the ball] and run, and play hard defense, and I think we did that well. We had a bad fifth and sixth chukker, but we managed to hold on and we got the job done.”
Veteran competitor, Jared Sheldon, was praised by his teammates for coming back to the sport for a strong performance after a significant injury this winter. “I basically ripped the tendon off my bone in January, and they surgically repaired it,” Sheldon explained. “So, I’ve been back in the saddle for a little over three weeks, and it’s been about seven or eight months since I’ve played. This is my first game back, but it felt amazing to get back out there!”
Fierce ride off between Charlotte and Greenville.
Sheldon emphasized that the energy of the crowd was a huge motivator for a tired Greenville as they defended their title late in the game. “For me especially, coming back from the injury, I got a little tired, so the crowd helped us players to feed off of their energy and kept us going. It [the energy] gives us that little extra to finish the game off the way we need to,” he continued. “It was a blast. It was fun to get back out there. The crowd was amazing. The venue was amazing, as always, and it was a heck of a game. We made it a little closer than we wanted to, but we got it done!”
“I want to thank the other team,” Viana said following the awards ceremony. “We all played hard and respected each other, and we all put it on the line, but there was never a moment of bad faith, and that’s hard to find. I want to thank them all for taking care of us as we took care of them and played hard. Polo is a game we play because of pride. We want to be good at it. We want to thank Gladiator Polo™, Tryon International Equestrian Center and Mark Bellissimo for allowing us the opportunity to play here.”
Coppola echoed that the support of brands such as tonight’s sponsors, USPA and USPAGL (the U.S. Polo Assn. brand), is important to the success of the sport as a whole. “It’s huge to have the support of these brands, and it’s big for them and for us. It gets their name out and gives us a chance to put a good show on for everyone, and it’s just amazing to get this many people involved and put on a show like we did tonight.”
Throughout the week, Gladiator Polo™ competitors served as coaches to participants in the Ninja Polo™ Camp at TIEC proudly supported by the Polo Training Foundation, prepping them for a two-chukker showcase in Tryon Stadium ahead of the night’s match and giving participants the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s best arena polo players. Sheldon emphasized that the young stars were a joy to work with and that the inaugural camp has an exciting future ahead growing the sport of polo.
Ninja Polo™ Camp competition at TIEC.
“The kids were great,” Sheldon said. “I love working with kids, and especially ones like these that are so focused and really into the sport. [These kids] want to get better and listen, and really give their best effort, so it was great to work with them.”
*Felipe Viana and Matt Coppola are members of Team USPA. Jared Sheldon and Patrick Uretz are Team USPA alumni. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos ©Alex Pacheco