“We were extra confident going into the final, having confidence in both our horses and each other. I think chemistry, horses and a good attitude helped us win.” – Winston Painter
Definitively winning their semifinal matchup with an unprecedented display of offensive fire power and relentless determination, Eastern Region (Sophie Grant, Aiden Meeker, Winston Painter*, Landen Eckbo Daniels) entered the 2021 National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Championship® Final on Sunday, September 12, with a proven game plan in place. Hosted by Oak Brook Polo Club (Oak Brook, Illinois) and presented by the Chicago Polo Association, semifinal and final matches were played at Las Brisas Polo Club (Elgin, Illinois) and Oak Brook Polo Club with the consolation finals and other events held at Morgan Creek Polo Club (Yorkville, Illinois) and Due West Polo Club (Oswego, Illinois). Preventing their opponents from controlling the scoreboard with strong defensive plays, Wild Card (Daniel Miranda, Josh Escapite, Vlad Tarashansky, Taylor Palacios) kept the game tight throughout, but ultimately Eastern Region’s effective communication helped them stay just out of reach to claim their second Cecil Smith Cup 8-6. As the official apparel supplier of the NYTS Championship® weekend, U.S. Polo Assn. outfitted the players with whites and t-shirts and provided gear bags and watches as prizes.
Springing into action and setting the pace from the opening bowl in, Sophie Grant passed the ball up to Aiden Meeker who secured a goal for Eastern Region within the first minute of play. “Our communication was great as well as not trying to do all the fancy stuff,” Meeker said. “We were just able to release the ball and go.” Starting off with two-goals on handicap, Wild Card’s advantage quickly evaporated as both sides capitalized from the penalty line. “We wanted to keep the game as open as possible because it plays to our team’s strengths,” Grant said. “Knowing we would be down two goals at the first throw-in we had to come out strong and have patience.” Known for bold moves on the field, Painter managed to steal possession from Palacios on Best Playing Pony Soda and equalize the scoreboard 3-all. Striking early in the second with back-to-back goals, Painter’s attack put Wild Card on the defensive. Always anticipating their opponents’ next move and reacting accordingly, Eastern Region created space for Painter to score his fifth goal of the game, ending halftime up 6-4.
Eastern’s Winston Painter leans into Wild Card’s Josh Escapite vying for position. ©Andrew Meier
“Talking to each other helped us get a better idea of not only what was in front of us, but also behind us. It was like having eyes in the back of your head.” – Aiden Meeker
Wild Card’s Taylor Palacios reaching for the ball ahead of Eastern’s Winston Painter. ©Kaile Roos
Although their efforts were not reflected with many goals on the scoreboard, Wild Card’s defensive skills did give them a reprieve in the second half as Eastern faced a scoreless third chukker. Taking advantage of a Penalty 2 opportunity, Escapite sunk his third goal of the day and brought Wild Card within one heading into the fourth chukker. Looking to extend their lead in the final chukker, Eastern utilized every member of the team to make their plays happen. “My job was to stick to the man and play defense,” Daniels said. “I would back the ball to Winston [Painter] or Aiden [Meeker] and they would hit it up to Sophie [Grant].” Executing a strategic team play, Meeker lofted the ball to Grant who made a beautiful nearside neckshot to goal. Consistently scoring one goal per chukker, Escapite answered back yet again with a penalty conversion as the minutes counted down. Not wanting to risk a possible overtime chukker, Grant stole possession and made a final breakaway on LAC Ace, the ball rolling over the end line to seal the win for Eastern 8-6.
Competing with friends and guided by her former Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) coach, Grant was confident that the strength of those relationships would translate onto the field. “I believe that the well-rounded ability of all four players on our team led to our success and dominance,” Grant said. “The chemistry between the four of us and our coach Tiger Kneece was great. We’re all close friends off the field so it was easy to gel together on the field.” Although the only woman among the finalists, Grant never allows her gender to steal focus from her undeniable skill. “I am not intimidated by being the only woman on the field,” Grant commented. “I always play as hard as I can and I think my teammates and the players on the opposing team respect that and don’t treat me any differently.”
Eastern receiving coaching from Tiger Kneece. ©Kaile Roos
Participating as a NYTS coach for three years, Tiger Kneece ended the weekend with a double win, leading both the Eastern Region and Girls Purple to championship titles. “I know all of the Eastern kids and I’ve known a couple of them for a really long time through Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) and NYTS,” Kneece said. “They are good kids and good polo players so it’s fun to coach them.” “Ultimately he gave us a lot of confidence,” Daniels added. “We went over games, strategy, knock ins, throw ins – it was awesome.”
“It was so great to see everybody after such a long summer. I want this team to play in some USPA tournaments across the country.” – Aiden Meeker
Eastern’s Aiden Meeker high-fiving coach Tiger Kneece. ©Kaile Roos
Earning their first trophy in 2019 followed by a loss in the 2020 NYTS Championship® Final, the Eastern Region returned to the 2021 competition stronger than ever. “Winston [Painter], Sophie [Grant] and I had a rough final last year, but this whole week we just connected so well,” Meeker said. “It was so great to see everybody after such a long summer. I want this team to play in some USPA tournaments across the country.”
Eastern’s Landen Daniels attempts a backhand with space between his competitors on the field. ©Andrew Meier
Having the added benefit of familiarity with their polo ponies, Eastern Region was able to step onto the field knowing exactly what their mounts were capable of. “We lucked out because three of our team members were on their own horses and I was playing Mariano Obregon’s horses,” Painter said. “I think we were extra confident going into the final, having confidence in both our horses and each other. I think chemistry, horses and a good attitude helped us win.” “My brother [Justin Daniels] brought great horses from Ipswich, Massachusetts, on a two-day drive,” Daniels shared. “It’s always an advantage playing on your own horses.”
As the 2020 defending champion with Florida Region, Landen Daniels was the only player on the field to claim the trophy consecutively with two different regions. “It was a fun experience learning to play with my former competitors and learning their strengths,” Daniels said. “I had a great time with all of them and it was cool to win for both Florida and Eastern.”
The Matthew Cohen Most Valuable Player Josh Escapite. Presented by Melinda and Sydney Cohen. ©Kaile Roos
Contributing four goals to the Wild Card’s tally, Josh Escapite was named Matthew Cohen Most Valuable Player. “It honestly feels so amazing to be named MVP in such a huge tournament!” Escapite exclaimed. “I worked very hard to achieve even playing in the tournament so getting MVP felt even better. I need to work even harder to make sure that I can come back and play again. This opportunity was amazing and I will remember it forever!”
Best Playing Pony Soda, played by Winston Painter and owned by Mariano Obregon Jr. Presented by NYTS Chair Chrys Beal and pictured with Marco Tulio Esquivel. ©Kaile Roos
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Soda, a 7-year-old Argentine mare owned by Mariano Obregon and played by Winston Painter in the first chukker. Knowing Obregon for a few years and spending a lot of time with him in Santa Barbara, California, Painter decided to reach out to see if he could rent horses for the tournament. “I knew the quality of his horses and that he would be in Illinois this time of year so he was the first person I called,” Painter said. “On the field Soda is a pure machine; explosive speed, super light mouth, flat gallop and comfortable stride. I am extremely glad she won Best Playing Pony, she deserved it.” U.S. Polo Assn. provided the BPP blanket while Texas Polo supplied the frame.
Recognizing Painter’s talent on the field, Obregon was happy to lend his horses to the budding polo star. “I bought her [Soda] from Javier Canton and I just brought her from Argentina eight months ago,” Obregon said. “I actually do not rent horses much, but I have seen Winston [Painter] play and I think he is a very good rider. He was definitely a good player to mount.” Painter also received the Horsemanship Award and a bridle from Texas Polo.
Horsemanship Award Winner Winston Painter. Presented by USPA Executive Director of Services Carlucho Arellano. ©Kaile Roos
Western Region’s Quinn Kyle received the Sportsmanship Award. “This was my first NYTS experience and it was a great way for me to broaden myself in the polo community,” Kyle shared. “The world of polo is small so being able to meet other players close in age will benefit all of our futures. The NYTS program is also a great way to learn how to be a leader of a team and I am super grateful I got the opportunity to play in the championship.”
Transitioning into playing his first intercollegiate season at the University of Connecticut (UCONN), Painter can sum up his years of experience competing in NYTS with one word: gratitude. “I just am now realizing how lucky I am to be able to share the field with all my friends in a safe and fun environment that’s still competitive,” Painter said reflecting. “I’m grateful to have been a part of it.” “We worked well together and the way we played as a team really showed what we could do,” Daniels echoed. “After all the work we put in and playing against kids my own age, winning this championship two years in a row makes me really happy.”
*Winston Painter is an Active Team USPA Member. 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.