Played as the subsidiary final to the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship at Twilight Polo Club in Middleburg, Virginia, 2021 finalists Core Real Estate (Andrew Baldwin, Connor Deal*, Eden Ormerod) went head-to-head against Liberty Hall (Zak Coleman, Liam Lott, John Gobin) for the United States Arena Handicap title and $5,000 in prize money. Featuring continuous action and end-to-end plays, a contested first half was finally broken on a two-pointer by Lott to send Liberty Hall into halftime with a one goal, 7-6 advantage. Finding the right combination of man-to-man defense and utilization of the boards, Liberty Hall continued to apply pressure while outscoring their opponents in the second half to take the 18-13 victory.
Falling to Beverly Equestrian (Wil Ballhaus, Lucio Fernandez Ocampo, Jorge “Tolito” Fernandez Ocampo Jr.) 22-13 in the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship semifinals, Liberty Hall was faced with a quick two-day turnaround to reformulate their strategy for the United States Arena Handicap. “Beverly was hungry,” expressed veteran captain Gobin. Coleman elaborated, “We had a warm-up match way above our league. Beverly had a 6 and a 7 goaler, and Liam and I had a really tough task on top of us. We tried the double team tactic, but Tolito played amazing. He’s an amazing grass player, so I’m sure that on grass he gets faced with double teams all the time. He would send a beautiful pass to Lucio’s mallet and score, and we knew that it wasn’t going to work. I think we just got thrown into the mix with the hardest team in the tournament.”
Liberty Hall’s Liam Lott on defense against Core Real Estate’s Eden Ormerod.
“If these games were swapped, we would’ve had a better result.” – Zak Coleman
Confident in their ability to gel as a team coupled with a home arena advantage, Gobin expressed the key adjustment for Liberty Hall, “We finally used a mixture between grass and arena, it’s a lot faster at this level, and there’s a lot of money on the line, so everyone’s prepared.”
Striking first, Baldwin put Core Real Estate on the scoreboard, but five combined penalties in the opening chukker provided plenty of opportunity for each team to settle into their respective strategies. Trading goals both teams saw scoring contributions from each player, with a goal from Core Real Estate’s Ormerod to end the chukker with a 4-3 advantage.
Liberty Hall’s Zak Coleman with a backshot down the arena.
Assembling as a team for the first time, both Coleman and Lott had each played with Gobin prior, and Coleman was quick to share his experiences with the 6-goaler, “Playing with John, your pre-game pep talk is about five seconds before the ball is thrown in. Whatever he tells you in those five seconds, you have to remember!”
Continuing to trade goals in the second, the young duo of Liberty Hall’s Lott and Coleman were met with scoring drives from Core Real Estate’s Deal and Ormerod. Finally breaking the stalemate in the remaining moments of the chukker, a booming two-pointer from Lott boosted Liberty Hall to a 7-6 lead at the break.
Leading Liberty Hall with three goals at the half, Lott shared, “We had a lot easier time playing against [Core Real Estate], as they had a similar style of polo to us. We played more man-to-man.” Echoing Lott, Coleman added, “This match-up was a lot more even and less top-heavy. We were able to play more one-on-one matchups, get the hook in and get the ball moving on defense.” “Finally, we [had] good teamwork,” Gobin expressed. “The boys were coming up the wall and playing better defense.”
Building off the momentum and confidence established in the latter stages of the first half, Liberty Hall held Core Real Estate to just three goals in the chukker. All three Liberty Hall players contributing to the score the team in red took a 13-9 lead moving into final period.
Taking advantage of Liberty Hall’s foul troubles in the fourth, two conversions from Deal inched Core Real Estate back into contention. Yet, three more goals from lead scorer Lott kept Liberty Hall on the attack, as a final ball to goal from Gobin capped off the 18-13 win.
Reflecting on the victory, Coleman said, “Liam and I are pretty steady kids, and we were able to adapt. To have your name on the Handicap trophy, it means a lot!” Developing their chemistry throughout the tournament, Coleman could not help but reflect how much their team had grown since their loss to Beverly, “If these games were swapped, we would’ve had a better result.” Gobin continued, “I’d like to play them again- I’m sure they’d win, but it would be a lot closer!”
Most Valuable Player John Gobin contributed five goals to Liberty Hall’s victory.
“I think I was the oldest guy out there; I know I’m the most tired guy out there!” – John Gobin
Contributing five goals and steadfast leadership, Liberty Hall’s John Gobin was named Most Valuable Player and received a U.S. Polo Assn. watch. “I think I was the oldest guy out there; I know I’m the most tired guy out there!” Continued Gobin, “it was a lot of fun and a lot of work, I’m glad we’re playing this in September when the weather’s cooled off. My horses were good and I’m going to get my crew to turn them out, because they’re ready for some grass.”
Best Playing Pony Spraypaint, played and owned by Connor Deal, pictured with Meghan Milligan.
Spraypaint, a 20-year-old gelding owned by Connor Deal and played in the first and third chukker was awarded Best Playing Pony. “He’s a little quirky, but I love him a lot,” shared Deal. “He’s an American thoroughbred (Graffiti x Lord Franco) out of Owen Reinhart, and he’s been one of my favorite horses for a long time. I think it’s time for him to retire, so it’s a fun thing to win in his last tournament. He usually hates the arena- maybe it’s a sign of his maturity that he played well for it!”
*Connor Deal is Team USPA 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 ©Tony Gibson.