The crowd won’t be as large as usual, although it is still a sellout, and Dickie V won’t be there to provide the hyperbole.
But it is still North Carolina vs. Duke. And that’s enough to get the adrenaline pumping no matter what sport is being contested.
Though not as publicized as the annual matchups on the basketball court or football field, the rivalry between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will be just as intense on Saturday when teams representing the schools take their mounts for Saturday’s Battle of the Blues polo match in Efland.
“There’s a lot of UNC and Duke rivalry at the barn,” said Tammy Havener, who plays for the Duke team. “I’m excited that I’ve gotten to play in it the last four years because it’s a big game for us. We give each other grief all the time. It’s a fun thing to rib each other about.”
Havener and the Blue Devils won last year’s event and have taken four of the past five meetings. Members of the winning team get their names engraved onto the trophy that remains in their possession until the following year’s match.
It’s a competition that has evolved considerably from what could best be described as a modest beginning.
“Usually we’d have either alumni or employees and occasionally some students from the two schools and they would be on teams out here with us, so we put it together and had a match,” said David Brooks, owner of the Triangle Polo Club in Hurdle Mills, a small community located between Hillsborough and Roxboro. “It was a lot smaller and has gotten bigger.”
It’s gotten so big that it’s outgrown Brooks’ venue and moved to the Barn at Lloyd’s Dairy — a sprawling 800-acre farm in Orange County that also serves as an event venue in addition to a polo field.
Known as the Sport of Kings, polo originated centuries ago as a training exercise for cavalry units. The game itself is similar in concept to that of hockey, soccer or lacrosse — except that it’s played on horseback.
The object is to score more goals than the other team by using a long-handled wood mallet to hit a ball into the opposition’s goal. Each team consists of four riders and games are 1-2 hours, divided into periods called chukkers.
“What I tell people is to think of learning to ride and learning to ride at speed, then swinging a golf club at the same time,” Brooks said. “That’s really what they’re doing. It’s really difficult, but once you get a rhythm of it, it’s not too bad.”
The Triangle Polo Club has about 25 members — although that number is growing thanks to the efforts of Brooks and his wife, who run programs designed to introduce and educate people on the sport.
Some of those newcomers will be on the field Saturday.
“My mom’s work friend invited me to go watch Battle of the Blues one day and I thought this is a really cool sport,” said Nicole Romach, a junior at Jordan High School in Durham, who plays for the UNC squad because her mother is a Tar Heel graduate. “I wanted to try it out, so I started taking some lessons and fell in love with polo.”
Exactly one year after watching her first polo match, Romach played in her first match at last year’s Battle of the Blues.
“Battle of the Blues is what got me into the sport,” she said. “To be able to play in it as my first tournament was really significant. It’s really intense, but the trash-talking is mostly friendly.”
While the game itself is the main event, it’s only part of the show.
There will also be VIP tents, a car show, a silent auction, food trucks and an after-party, along with live entertainment. And no UNC-Duke matchup would be complete without tailgating — with the proper social distancing, of course.
Although the crowd will be smaller than hoped because of the restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, the size of the venue will allow for at least some audience participation.
“We went through the state and got COVID certified,” said Craig Lloyd, owner of Lloyd’s Dairy. “We’ve got the signage, the contact tracing, we’re doing PPDs on-site, we’ve got hand-sanitizing stations throughout the area.
“We work closely with the agritourism people with the state, so we’ve gotten a lot of advice and have followed all the guidelines. Because we’re an 800-acre farm, it gives us a little bit of room to distance.”
Lloyd said that the event is already a sellout.
The match itself isn’t officially affiliated with the schools and only a handful of the participants are currently students at UNC and Duke. Most of the players are alumni or the children of alumni who plan on attending the school whose shade of blue they’re wearing.
Havener had her choice of sides, since she attended graduate school at Duke and currently works as a researcher at UNC.
But in her mind, it wasn’t much of a choice at all.
“I’m actually an NC State graduate,” she said. “I did graduate work at Duke and I worked there for over 15 years before I shifted to UNC, so I’m kind of a mixed bag. But I’m a State person at heart, so I just can’t bring myself to play for UNC. So when we do the Battle of the Blues, I’ve always chosen Duke.”
*Photo courtesy of Andy Rowland The Battle of the Blues polo match pits Tar Heels against Blue Devils while introducing people to the sport. (Photo courtesy of Andy Rowland)