Suffering disappointing defeats in the past two finals, the women of the University of Virginia (UVA) fought for another opportunity at the title in the Women’s Arena Handicap Final on Saturday, October 5. Adding former opponent and two-time champion, Maddie Grant, to the roster, UVA unified to create an unstoppable force in the second half, working together to outplay Sullivan Group 16-12.
“We really wanted to use this opportunity to debut as a strong unit while playing against top female arena competitors. This win means that our current day-to-day routine is working and our practices are effective; it’s truly the little things that make the difference!” – Demitra Hajimihalis
UVA’s Demitra Hajimihalis.
Receiving a goal on handicap from the onset, Sullivan Group came out with energy and intensity in the first chukker, hoping to capitalize on the advantage with a strong start. Focused on her target, 8-goaler Marissa Wells navigated the arena with skilled precision to score four field goals for her team. Demonstrating her own expertise with the mallet, Grant was quick to add goals to the scoreboard, nailing two impressive two-pointers to keep the game within one. Their narrow lead short-lived, Sullivan Group was shut out in the second by an effective, tight defense, allowing UVA the opportunity to add two more goals and claim the lead at halftime 6-5.
Sullivan Group’s Catie Stueck carries the ball on the nearside with Virginia Polo’s Meghan Milligan defending. ©Kelly Wells
UVA launched a spectacular offensive assault on their opponents in the third with every UVA member contributing to the scoreboard. Grant led the charge with four goals, UVA ultimately doubling their score by the end of the chukker. Opening the third with her seventh and eighth goals of the day, Grant was followed up by Demitra Hajimihalis before Sullivan Group finally found the opportunity to break their silence. Trading goals with Grant, Wells singlehandedly kept Sullivan Group in the game with three goals of her own, however the third ended 12-8 in favor of UVA. Extending their lead still further, UVA continued to exercise strategic team play adding a pair of goals to their tally early in the fourth. Scoring all of Sullivan Group’s goals, Wells converted a penalty, but the team was unable to keep the ball out of Grant’s grasp for long. Making her shot count, Catie Stueck picked up a two-point goal in the final minutes of play but the deficit proved too large to overcome. Maintaining a four-goal lead throughout the second half, UVA’s hard work and open communication paid off with a 16-12 win.
Marissa Wells prepares for the shot with Maddie Grant on her hip. ©Kelly Wells
Scoring a game high 13 goals, Maddie Grant sealed her third consecutive Women’s Arena Handicap victory. “As a team we were communicating a lot and making sure we kept the man behind the play,” Grant revealed. “We were also passing really well and spreading out the field which made it harder to defend. This was the best possible outcome for our team.”
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Gaucha, a mare played by Maddie Grant in the fourth chukker. “Gaucha was donated to UVA about six years ago from Jared Zenni*. She went straight into the women’s varsity string and has been everyone’s favorite horse since then,” Grant commented. “She is incredibly powerful and I feel like I can get to any ball on her, win any ride off, and out stop and out turn anybody. She’s one horse that doesn’t belong to me, but I wish she did, I love her as much as I love any of my own horses. She’s really special and I’m really happy that I am getting to play her now for UVA. It’s a dream come true because I grew up playing her when I would come down and visit and she’s always been so talented and she’s still just as amazing as when I rode her for the first time four or five years ago. Her stopping, turning and acceleration are unreal.”
Best Playing Pony, Gaucha, pictured with Maddie Grant. ©Kelly Wells
Playing in the last Women’s Arena Handicap of their college careers, Meghan Milligan and Demitra Hajimihalis have loved the experience of playing intercollegiate polo over the past four years. “We’re having so much fun as a team and ultimately just wanted to remember why we do this and our passion for the sport,” Hajimihalis said. “I really want to thank all of those at Virginia Polo Center because without everyone in our club and their dedication, we would not be able to compete. A win for one team is a win for all and as a whole it is amazing to be a part of such a strong start for Virginia Polo this year.”
*Jared Zenni is a member of Team USPA. 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.