Continuing competitive 12-goal play at Sarasota Polo Club in Sarasota, Florida, a growing rivalry reignited as Hillcroft (Vaughn Miller Jr., Mason Wroe*, Ignacio “Nachi” Viana, James Miller) and Whiskey Pond (Brent Hamill, Valentino Echezarreta, Guille Aguero, Toto Collardin, alt. Ramon Collardin) emerged to the top of the standings in the National Outdoor Commander-in-Chief Cup.
In a rematch of the Regional Classic-Southeastern, the two evenly-matched teams found themselves going head-to-head in front of an energized crowd for a second consecutive national title within a month. After falling short in the Regional Classic-Southeastern 11-5, Hillcroft came prepared to flip the script, and with six goals scored from Hillcroft’s new roster addition Nachi Viana, they were able to avenge their prior loss in a game of déjà vu, as Hillcroft reversed the score 11-5 to reach the podium for the first time this season.
“Nachi Viana is a superstar in the making. When he had control of the ball, we tried to give him time and space to work his magic.” – Mason Wroe
Carrying a 3-0 record, including a 10-4 win against Whiskey Pond in bracket play, a confident Hillcroft team came into the final playing their best team polo. Awaiting their opponent, it was no surprise for Wroe to see their familiar foes once again, “playing against Whiskey Pond is always a tough matchup, Guille Aguero and Toto Collardin are exceptional polo players. They rise to the occasion. Losing to them in the previous [Regional Classic-Southeastern] final, we had yet to beat them in a final.” Wroe continued, “it was an important matchup for us, we had to start strong. We wanted to play how we play and make them adapt their game to us.”
Hillcroft’s Mason Wroe and Whiskey Pond’s Valentino Echezarreta battle for possession.
Hillcroft’s offensive take over began immediately in the first chukker responding to an opening goal from Whiskey Pond’s Toto Collardin. Three Hillcroft players contributed to their early scoring efforts, combining for five goals, including two early penalty conversions from Viana. “I like hitting penalties,” shared Viana, “I don’t have a routine when I’m hitting them, but I do practice them before the season starts.” Taking advantage of penalty opportunities and generating a strong defensive effort to hold Whiskey Pond scoreless in the second and third chukkers of play, Hillcroft took a commanding 5-1 lead at halftime.
Reflecting on Hillcroft’s first half unity and execution, Wroe shared, “we wanted to stay disciplined, work hard with our man, work hard away from the ball, and create time and space for us to receive the ball. Our strategy was to trust each other, communicate, play mistake free polo, and move the ball.”
Hillcroft’s Vaughn Miller Jr. taps the ball downfield at speed.
In a match with thirteen fouls committed by Whiskey Pond compared to just seven from Hillcroft, Viana struck twice more for Hillcroft to open the second half on back-to-back penalty conversions, to remain a perfect four for four shooting from the line. Following another two field goals from Viana and Miller Jr., Whiskey Pond was facing a staggering seven goal deficit entering the fifth chukker.
Unable to generate any offensive success since the opening chukker, a Penalty 1 finally kick-started a two-goal run from Echezarreta and Ramon Collardin. Halting any Whiskey Pond progress, Wroe responded and struck for his third from the field. Despite a final push from Echezarreta to add one more for Whiskey Pond, Viana found the posts for his sixth goal to cap off a phenomenal team effort, as Hillcroft galloped away with the title 11-5.
Overjoyed to reach their goal of finally overtaking Whiskey Pond, Wroe stated, “When things come together for a victory, it’s always nice. All the hard work that goes in behind the scenes— the stick-and-ball sessions, the bracket play games, to have all that culminate in a finals victory, that’s a big deal.” Wroe added, “We played our best game of the tournament in the finals, which is how you want to be. It keeps you going, it keeps you wanting to work harder.”
For his outstanding offensive contributions, including six goals, Ignacio “Nachi” Viana was named Most Valuable Player. “This final was very, very fun! Many fans showed up and hearing them cheer the whole game was amazing. We concentrated on the game and played as a team. Each of us had his own role and I think we executed pretty well.” Viana continued of his new Hillcroft team, “I had played with James Miller last year in Port Mayaca [Polo Club in Okeechobee, Florida] and Kentucky, playing with him again was fun and important to me.”
Most Valuable Player Ignacio “Nachi” Viana contributed six goals to Hillcroft’s win.
Originally slated to join Hillcroft at the start of the season, Viana’s arrival in Florida was briefly delayed due to his participation representing his native Uruguay in the Federation of International Polo (FIP) Zone B Qualifier. “Viana could not play with us in January,” stated Wroe, “we had Whistle Uys play with us. [Viana] is a rising star. He is a nice addition to the team and brings a lot of confidence and swagger. He’s always upbeat and positive, it’s always fun to have people that around that work hard.”
“We played our best game of the tournament in the finals, which is how you want to be. It keeps you going, it keeps you wanting to work harder.” – Mason Wroe
Viana, who’s arrival in South Florida includes a packed schedule is also currently competing in the GAUNTLET OF POLO’s USPA Gold Cup® at International Polo Club Palm Beach (IPC) in Wellington, Florida, for La Elina. Battling at the highest level of polo has only boosted his confidence for tackling the expectations of performing in Sarasota. “I knew watching him play in the USPA Gold Cup®, he was going to be very fast and all over the field in our final and he was indeed,” noted Wroe. Managing his time between Wellington and Sarasota is a challenge that Viana gladly accepts, “travelling [from Wellington to Sarasota] of course is difficult because it takes all day, especially for the horses. But the location is so beautiful, I really enjoy it.”
Winning the Best Playing Pony award in the Regional Classic-Southeastern, Toto Collardin’s homebred Regia played in the first and third chukkers, went back-to-back to claim her second consecutive Best Playing Pony title. “She’s has really good speed and mouth. She knows every play, she’s my best mare,” said Collardin.
Best Playing Pony Regia, played and owned by Toto Collardin. Presented by Celebrity Cruise Line’s Cal Crews and pictured with Jose Ramos and Cristian Piedra Buena.
Action at the 12-goal level for both Hillcroft and Whiskey Pond has already resumed in the National Inter-Circuit Championship at Sarasota Polo Club. Both teams will join their fellow competitors from the National Outdoor Commander-in-Chief Cup, along with Glen Farm, where Hillcroft will seek to defend their title.
Remaining a steadfast team to beat, Wroe and Hillcroft are ready for the challenge of another tournament, “we have good momentum right now. We’re flowing well. Now we look to continue the rhythm and the chemistry we have and hopefully find success. As we all know with [polo], all you can do is prepare and lay it all on the line.”
Viana congratulates Wroe following their first title of the season.
*Mason Wroe is Team USPA Member alumnus. 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 ©Julio Aguilar.