Uniting talented and committed amateur players from across the country, the National Arena Amateur Cup (NAAC) assembled for a third consecutive year of competition at Legends Polo Club in Kaufman, Texas. Showcasing players who have earned points in the NAAC system competing in USPA circuit, sanctioned and national tournaments throughout the year, a field of six teams narrowed to a showdown between Blazing Saddles (Mark Osburn, Sydney Morris, Marcus Murphy) and The Trifecta (Megan Rahlfs, Rehan Kumble, Amanda Osburn). Each entering the final undefeated in bracket play, returning champion and NAAC points co-leader Kumble led The Trifecta with nine goals, but the evenly distributed contributions of Blazing Saddles culminated in a five-goal fourth chukker to deliver a 16-12 victory and the coveted NAAC title.
“I love arena polo, it’s like my home. It’s what I grew up playing and what I started playing, so it’s always a treat whenever I get the opportunity to play.” – Rehan Kumble
Assigned teams as part of the NAAC format, Morris shared how Blazing Saddles united in their short time together, “I had not met either of my teammates. I was really excited and a little nervous. It’s hard when you don’t know your team, but Mark was really nice and made a group chat [and that] was super beneficial. We were able to get to know each other and discuss some different play ideas before we met.” Mark Osburn added, “I knew Marcus from the Texas Arena League and had seen him playing well at the end of the TAL season, so I figured I had a good running and gunning number one—he lived up to and exceeded my expectations.” Mark Osburn continued, “I had not met Sydney yet, but I’ll never forget her, she’s a strong, selfless player and is always locking down opponents to let her teammates score.”
KaBooM!’s Mila Slutzy and Proton Polo’s Victoria McGraw.
Handily defeating Proton Partners (Javier Insua, Lindsay Bellack, Victoria McGraw) 20-11 and KaBooM! (Brady Williams, Kimberly Vaughn, Mila Slutzky) 12-7 in bracket play, Mark Osburn reflected, “I’d only played against Brady one time, but I’ve played with him for four years, so I had a pretty good idea on what we should do against him. I’ve never been able to beat a team with Javier on it—he always seems to make plays and get it done, so I knew we had to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible.”
“All of us did our part to make plays happen and if something wasn’t working, we could change it and try again.” – Sydney Morris
Earning their entry to the final with a 2-0 record, Mark Osburn explained the challenges his team was up against taking on The Trifecta, including facing-off against his wife, Amanda. “It’s a little bittersweet playing against my wife in the final, she’s always in the right spot to disrupt any offense we were trying to put together, so being disciplined and sticking to the man was first with our plan against them.”
Rehan Kumble led The Trifecta with nine goals in the NAAC final.
Awarding The Trifecta one goal on handicap at the onset of the game, Murphy quickly responded for Blazing Saddles, but three goals from Kumble and gave The Trifecta an early 5-2 advantage. Rebounding in the second, Murphy ignited a four-goal run for Blazing Saddles that included contributions from Morris and Mark Osburn. Holding their opponents to just one goal each from Rahlfs and Kumble before the half, Blazing Saddles’ reenergized offensive and defensive play allowed them to pull even 7-all at the horn.
“We weren’t afraid to change our plan mid-game or switch spots in the arena. Our number one rule was to have fun, enjoy ourselves and back each other up.” – Marcus Murphy
Reflecting on Blazing Saddles’ first half efforts Morris shared, “All of us did our part to make plays happen and if something wasn’t working, we could change it and try again. We were down in the second chukker, so we made a change to our bowl-in lineup and that really turned the game around. I think our teamwork and adaptability really helped, we didn’t get frustrated with each other—we just kept playing our positions and trusting our teammates.”
Crediting the competition, Morris added, “there were so many amazing players at the NAAC and one of the strengths we saw throughout the tournament was their ability to have an accurate long shot. They can get the ball into the goal from anywhere, so we had to really pressure them and send one of our players to pick up the rebound.” Competing in his second NAAC Murphy added, “One thing that helped us play so well was the communication we had on the field. We weren’t afraid to change our plan mid-game or switch spots in the arena. Our number one rule was to have fun, enjoy ourselves and back each other up.”
Blazing Saddles’ Marcus Murphy carries the ball on the nearside ahead of The Trifecta’s Rehan Kumble.
A back-and-forth third chukker, all three of Blazing Saddles’ teammates managed to find the scoreboard, as Kumble contributed another four goals for The Trifecta to keep the match deadlocked 11-all entering the final frame. Applying pressure to open the fourth, Murphy once again served as Blazing Saddle’s offensive catalyst, spurring Morris to hit the goal on three consecutive drives. Leading by four, Rehan battled to keep The Trifecta within reach, but one last effort from Osburn sealed the win for Blazing Saddles 16-12.
Blazing Saddles’ Marcus Murphy stays locked on the ball with The Trifecta’s Megan Rahlfs hustling to defend.
In recognition of his leadership and contributions on both sides of the ball, Mark Osburn was named Most Valuable Player. “I have to give credit to Marcus and Sydney for helping me so much,” he noted. “I think the experience passed down from players like Wyatt Myr and Tiamo Hudspeth* helped a lot, I’ve never played back before, but I tried to use strategies I’ve learned from playing with them to give my team advantages. Also, the horses played great—never a bad chukker!”
Most Valuable Player Mark Osburn, presented by Tom Goodspeed.
Maggie, a 13-year-old mare owned by Sydney Morris was awarded Best Playing Pony. “It was so awesome to have Maggie win Best Playing Pony, she is always Best Playing Pony in my heart, and it was cool to have other people notice her,” shared Morris. “I played her in the second and fourth chukkers in the final, I hopped on her because our team was trailing in the second chukker and she helped us even the score.”
Morris continued, “She’s an off-the-track thoroughbred originally from Jared Sheldon, I’ve owned her for around four or five years now. Maggie has too many amazing qualities to count. She’s my go-to anytime I know that I need a good horse in a chukker. My favorite quality is her heart and grit—every time I ride her whether it’s just stick-and-balling or the NAAC finals, she gives me 110%. No matter how tired she is or what level we are playing, she gives me every last bit she has. She’s always on the same page as me, which makes it so easy to make fast plays—she turns and stops on a dime and can ride-off any horse.”
Sydney Morris drives to the goal on Best Playing Pony Maggie.
Demonstrating continued positive attitude, fairness, and support for her peers on and off the field, Megan Rahlfs was the recipient of the finals Sportsmanship Award. “It felt great to win the Sportsmanship Award,” said Rahlfs, “I tried to utilize my team’s strengths and read the arena to position them in the best spots possible. I knew a lot of the people and horses playing in the tournament, which was helpful for me to pick plays and make a good game plan with my teammates before going into each chukker. I feel like our teamwork as well as arena experience, is a big part of the reason we made it to the finals.” Speaking to the importance of the NAAC to elevate and showcase talented arena players, Rahlfs added, “I absolutely hope to play this tournament in the future. As someone who played interscholastic and intercollegiate with the USPA, I am so grateful to have an opportunity to continue playing competitive arena out of school!”
Lending a hand throughout the tournament to all competitors, Cort Rowley received the Overall Sportsmanship Award, “This is my first time playing the NAAC and I absolutely loved it,” said Rowley, “It was a great opportunity, and I was really glad I was able to be a part of it. I’m the current captain on Cal Poly’s men’s polo team and I’ve been welcomed with open arms by everyone in the polo world. It was an honor and a privilege to be able to come here and compete in Texas.”
Overall Sportsmanship Award recipient Cort Rowley received a gift certificate towards a Bombers Bit, donated by Jose Velez.
Played as the subsidiary to the NAAC, the Southwestern Circuit Admiral Chester W. Nimitz saw KaBoom! rise 7-3 over Proton Partners. Best Playing Pony was awarded to Camina, an Appaloosa owned by Valeria Insua, with Don English earning the Sportsmanship Award and Mila Slutzky taking home Most Valuable Player. Competing in her second NAAC, after recently capturing the USPA Women’s Arena Open, Slutzky shared, “I feel like I’ve been playing a little more consistently than usual and my teammates were really great and helped me a lot this weekend. Sometimes I’m a little bit nervous and hard on myself, so it’s nice to have the MVP as recognition that I’m doing well and it makes me feel more confident in my playing.”
“Sometimes, I’m a little bit nervous and hard on myself, so it’s nice to have the MVP as recognition that I’m doing well and it makes me feel more confident in my playing.” – Mila Slutzky
Southwestern Circuit Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Most Valuable Player Mila Slutzky, presented by Tom Goodspeed.
Earning an impressive 18 points to top the NAAC leaderboard alongside Don English, Kumble reflected on a jam-packed arena season, “I love arena polo, it’s like my home. It’s what I grew up playing and what I started playing, so it’s always a treat whenever I get the opportunity to play.” Encouraging fellow arena players to participate in the NAAC, Kumble added, “This tournament was so much fun last year, and it got me hyped-up on the plane here. Absolutely do it. You get to meet so many great new people and it’s going to be the most fun of your life!” Calling Legends Polo club home, two-time NAAC champion Osburn encouraged, “Get out there, have fun and come see us in the NAAC next year!”
NAAC Individual High-Point winners Don English and Rehan Kumble each took home a customized belt buckle.
“As someone who played interscholastic and intercollegiate with the USPA, I am so grateful to have an opportunity to continue playing competitive arena out of school!” – Megan Rahlfs
*Tiamo Hudspeth is Team USPA alumnae. 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.
All photos courtesy of ©David Murrell.