Chukkers for Community: Annual polo match funds local scholarships

WILLIAMSBURG — Unless you’ve been lucky enough to go to the Gatsby-esque Governor’s Island polo match in New York, chances are in the U.S. you have not seen a polo match or know anything about the game.

But a few hundred at Flintfields Horse Park in Williamsburg got an up-close look at a game of “The Sport of Kings” between the University of Michigan and Michigan State Polo clubs Saturday afternoon — all for a small donation of $10.

The annual charity event brought several “Go Blue” and “Go Green” chants to the Turtle Creek International Championship from Traverse City locals sporting Kentucky Derby-style hats and elegant getups on a hot summer afternoon.

Organizers didn’t have an exact dollar figure for money raised between sponsorships, VIP tables and gate fees as of Saturday, but they anticipated granting more than a dozen scholarships to students in the five-county Grand Traverse region who planned on attending Michigan’s two flagship schools after graduating from Northwestern Michigan College.

Scholarships were also fundraised for NMC-only students as well.

“I think we’re looking at probably five scholarships that will come to NMC and 10 to each of the other institutions, but that will play out based on funds raised,” NMC President Nick Nissley said.

NMC recently completed its “Be what’s possible” fundraising campaign. Its initial goal of $35 million was surpassed by $40 million raised, achieving it by 114%.

“One of the things I heard when I was interviewing was people saying that NMC isn’t just a college, it’s the community’s college. When I was interviewing, I didn’t quite know what that meant. But being here a year and a half now, it’s become real clear to me,” Nissley said. “Just looking on a 90-degree day out here at the horse park, the fact that so many people were here, it’s because they believe it’s the community’s college.”

Described by polo professional Nacho Figueras — the face of Ralph Lauren — as “playing golf in an earthquake,” points in the sport are scored when the ball makes it through the goal posts at the end of the arena. If a player hits a shot in goal from more than halfway down the arena, it counts as two points.

The game is divided into “chukkers” which last 7.5 minutes. After a chukker is played, riders swap horses.

The Spartans won the three-on-three exhibition match 13-5. The team was comprised of Becca Stevens, Kevin Stevens and Paul Knapp. Michigan’s team had Sarah Knapp, Shamus Dillon and Caleb Pilukas.

Pilukas plays for the Detroit Polo Club. Becca and Kevin Stevens play at Grand Rapids Polo Club. Sarah and Paul Knapp own their own barn and travel under the team name “Flat Out,” and they also coach MSU’s team.

“We do it because we love the horses,” said Sarah Knapp, of Rockford, who’s actually a 2001 graduate of Michigan State who swapped jerseys for the day and played for U-M. “They say that a polo pony makes up about 80 percent of the game.”

Noticeably, the ball went out of play quite a bit. A regulation field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide — enough to fit nine football fields. The ring at Flintfields was roughly one-eighth of that typical size.

“We play four-on-four and horses get going at 30 to 45 miles per hour, so you need the space, because when you’re running full out, you run out of real estate if you will,” Knapp said.

The event was organized by Chairman Ross Childs, who ran it in both 2017 and 2018. It took a year off in 2019 and the 2020 event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Childs, a U-M alum, met with Chuck Benson, an MSU alum, in 2017 with the idea of creating a fundraiser to bring Wolverines and Spartans in the TC area together. Benson took on the role as vice chairman. All of the event is volunteer-run.

“I think we’re maybe the only fundraiser that does those two universities in a joint event,” Childs said.

In its first year the Go Blue/Go Green Polo Match 501©(3) granted five scholarships to students in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Kalkaska, Antrim and Benzie counties. The next year in 2018 they granted eight scholarships. Childs was anticipating that number growing to between 10 and 15 this fall.

Childs, too, had never seen a polo match before. He became intrigued after talking with the president of the University of Michigan Polo Club.

“He said let’s try it, and it was a rarity. People like to come and see it,” Childs said.

Numerous Traverse City businesses and entities supported the event. Chukkers were sponsored by North Peak Brewing Company. Speakers during intermissions were Traverse Connect, the Downtown Traverse City Association (DDA) and the Traverse City Visitors Bureau.

Barrel racing and line dancing followed the polo match between MSU and U-M until the event ended at about 7 p.m.

There was also a hat contest separated into categories for the school colors for each of the three schools.

Kimberly Purdy, a U-M alum from Traverse City, came prepared with a 2-foot-wide blue hat.

“My sister used to throw a Kentucky Derby party, so I had a couple of hats. I saw there was a hat contest, so I grabbed one of them and came out,” Purdy said. “I had two hats. One was red, and one was blue. But because I went to Michigan I thought, ‘I’ll bring the blue hat,’ and here I am.”

She knew nothing about the rules of polo before Saturday, but understood enough to feel repugnance over one thing.

“I didn’t like the beginning because State was pulling ahead,” she said as the Spartans held a 4-0 lead after the first chukker. “We’d be talking because we didn’t want to watch Michigan State get ahead, and she kept reminding us, ‘Hey, there’s a game going on.’”

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