Hoofbeats and Heartbeats: High School players dig deep to win 2021 National Championship

A championship triumph unlike others: A small, dedicated band of athletes, human and equine, who persevered through a world-wide pandemic become National Interscholastic Arena Polo Champions.

NEWBURGH, N.Y., July 12, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — You may not have heard much about Arena Polo, especially as a high school sport. But if you catch a practice on a cool fall evening, you’ll notice it’s a game of fluidity that moves like lightening around a flying ball, as players charge from offense to defense in a flash. It’s then you really start to understand the true meaning of horsepower and athleticism, and it takes your breath away. Polo is the ultimate team sport, combining the strategy, physical stamina, and stickwork of hockey, lacrosse, and soccer with expert horsemanship.

Gardnertown Polo Club, Newburgh NY, is now home to 2021 National Interscholastic Champions & Girls’ NE Regional winners.

Many parts of this game are familiar to sports fans–yet after experiencing the thundering sounds, clashing sticks and swift turns, admiration for all who play has new meaning. And yet there is another element to consider—the horses who teach you about yourself, beyond the sport. These animals are truly teammates, integral to the success of the team. Every rider has that one special horse that changed everything for them. “I am constantly reminded that playing from the heart comes from both the animals and the students,” remarked Coach Bill Dencker.

The backbone of the program has been provided by Coaches Bill Dencker owner of the Gardnertown Polo Club and the Gardnertown Full-Service Equine Facility (www.gardnertownfarm.com) and Dan Scott, seasoned trainer, player/coach, and Montgomery, NY native. Having previously developed the intercollegiate program for Vassar College, Bill has spent decades arranging successful tournaments and clinics with nearby clubs including Yale (https://yalepolo.wixsite.com/yalepoloteam), UConn (https://polo.rso.uconn.edu/), Haviland Hollow (http://www.nycpolo.com/) Newport (https://www.nptpolo.com/), and Saratoga Springs. The popular high school level program began in 2009, expanding to middle school level as interest in the sport—and tournaments–grew. “This team started six years ago as plucky underdogs, and over time the program has matured, bringing out the best in these 

student athletes. And now Newburgh, New York is the home of the 2021 USPA Open National Interscholastic Champs,” said Coach Dencker.

US Polo Association COO and In-House Counsel, Chris Green observed “In the twelve years I’ve played arena polo at Gardnertown, I’ve had the pleasure of watching them bring out the best in a generation of young players – a really diverse group of great kids and young adults who will always call Gardnertown their polo home. Gardnertown’s Open National Interscholastic Championship is a well-deserved testament to Bill and Trish Dencker and Danny Scott, and their years of success teaching riding and polo to youngsters, most of whom did not come from polo families.”

Coach Dan Scott passionately believes TA Armstrong’s sentiment: “‘Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the weeks, months, and years they spend preparing for it. The victory itself is merely the demonstration of their character,’ and these kids have been training to win.” He continued “All this is possible due to the support of our club members. By letting the boys use their horses, donating their time to play and umpire games, their generosity has put the boys in the position to play for the national title.”

From jumping to polo, Tricia and Bill support an extended community.

As a preeminent equestrian stop in the Hudson Valley, Gardnertown Farm is a highlight on the competition circuit for serious riders and beginners alike. The full-service facility has two large arenas and several outdoor areas for competition and boarding, and an extensive calendar of shows from A to C level throughout the entire year.

In addition, a significant culture-definer at Gardnertown Farm is a focus on empowering girls and women across all riding ability levels. Tricia Dencker, Gardnertown Farm owner/manager, is acutely aware of the issues facing women in sports and puts deliberate acknowledgment into the training process. “We have girls and women at every level of training. They see what is possible for their own achievements and are mentored by both women and men who are successful. The beauty of diversity in equestrian sports is that it creates a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.”

There’s no “one size fits all” at Gardnertown. The strength of their culture—described as “somewhere between a tribe and a village”—lies in the deeply rooted willingness of every person, brand new or veteran, to adapt and support each other, in ways large and small. This enables riders of all ages to thrive, expand, and deliver for each other, personally and as teammates. Bill and Tricia’s unwavering daily, direct support of neighbors, riders, and support staff, inspires the confidence that all will rise to the occasion and deliver excellence—and championships!

Former US Polo Association CEO, Duncan Huyler recognizes the unique atmosphere at Gardnertown Polo Club by highlighting the contributions of staff and club members to the community and equine welfare. He noted “The generosity demonstrated by Bill and Tricia to host multiple charity matches, has amounted to over $120,000 in funding to a variety of worthy local causes. They have contributed substantial development of commercial value of the area and used Bill’s experience as a NCAA Division I athlete to pursue excellence in athletics for several generations of players.” He added “The USPA is fortunate to have such an active and supportive group to continue developing the sport.”

Galloping from the heart: Meet the winning Team.

As the US emerged from quarantine in May 2021, the Interscholastic Gardnertown Polo team distinguished themselves in a competitive field of seven regional winners, during the annual USPA Open National Interscholastic Competition. In the final round at the University of Virginia, the Gardnertown Polo Club (Winston Painter-Captain, Vlad Tarashansky, Jonathan Wallace) met top seeded Houston Polo Club (Ashvath Bhatia, Joe Bob Lequerica, Will Mudra, Lance Stefanakis) to determine whose names would be engraved on the George C. Sherman Open National Interscholastic Championship (ONIS) trophy. (See video clips of the game here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zpv44yYBTq4&t=1s)

Playing attack at the 1 position is 17-year-old Vlad Tarashansky, a senior from Lloyd Harbor, NY. His experience of having played at clubs all around the tri-state area showed as he worked effectively with his Captain–who he considers an effective communicator—and stay optimistic and persevere during the 3rd and 4th chukker. His own two-point goal in the final chukker capped a fast and decisive win. “It feels really good to finally win Nationals, especially since it was cancelled last year due to the pandemic,” said Tarashansky. “Finishing off with such a commanding chukker was better than anything I could have imagined ending my high school career. It’s also great to win alongside Winston as seniors. I’ve been playing with and against him since I started about nine years ago.” Accepted to University of Virginia in the fall, his ability to contribute 7.3 average goals per game during this high-pressure tournament will create the foundation for success as he pursues a collegiate polo career.

Jonathan Wallace prefers playing the second position, enabling him to switch from attack to back while following the development of the plays. Originally from Jamaica and currently living in Newburgh NY, is a 16- year-old sophomore who started his polo journey with his brother just three short seasons ago, and the progress has been rapid and remarkable. The speed and flexible nature of the sport attracted him immediately, and he contributed 2 goals during the game to increase the team’s lead. He’s observed that managing the complexities of the sport, including logistics, rules, horses, and players, has broadened his ability to navigate situations both on the playing field and off. Enjoying the unique conditions at clubs around the northeast, his playing experience has included the historic Myopia Polo Club https://www.myopiapolo.org/, Yale, Cornellhttps://www.uspolo.org/clubs/cornell-polo-club, and Tinicum Park https://tinicumparkpoloclub.org/. Bouncing to the tunes of NOTD to get ready for a game prepares him for the speed and team dynamic that is crucial in the arena. When asked who he would choose to watch his game, he replied without hesitation “My extended family in Jamaica, who are so important to me.” Wallace is planning to use his experience during this season to provide a solid base to continue to grow with new teammates in the fall.

Describing their Championship game plan, team Captain Winston Painter explained “Our strategy going into the final was to take advantage of our throw-ins and our fast pace of play. Even though we had never faced this Houston team before we were confident that we wouldn’t have to change our strategy or style of play to contend for the victory.” Building on his experience of taking the USPA Interscholastic Northeast Regional division three years in a row, newer members of the team looked to Painter, as Captain, to use his skills to lead them to a winning record during the biggest tournament of the 2021 season. “This was my third year competing in the Nationals, and I hoped my experience would get my team get to the finish line” said a determined Painter. With the laser-like focus he is known for, Painter kept his constant speed going as they closed the second half of the final match–securing a 21-10 win over Houston. Especially effective playing the 3 position, he’s a senior from Redding, CT. His younger sister, Saralyn, is also a polo player whose Gardnertown team won this year’s Girls’ Northeast Regional title. A dedicated year-round player, Painter considers some of his most memorable polo experiences to include playing with his Gardnertown teammates in Interscholastic NYTS https://www.uspolo.org/association/programs/nyts and PTF https://polotraining.org/ polo tournaments, in addition to traveling to England and Argentina as part of PTF and USPA sponsored programs. He has also served on the PTF Junior Committee and PTF National Junior Board. He is attending UConn in the fall.

Photo credit: © OanaMoore 2021

Media Contact:

Tricia Dencker Gardnertown Polo Club
Phone: 914-841-1610

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