Following numerous scheduling and weather delays, the final of the National Eight Goal was underway on Saturday, August 20 at Beverly Polo Club in The Plains, Virginia, between Dragonfly/Pineapples (Audrey Wilde, Merrall Echezarreta, Marcos Bignoli, Martin Ravina) and Point to Point/Highfields (sub. Breanna Gunnell, Francisco Rodriguez-Mera, Bautista Micheletti, Michael Smith Liss).
Two staple competitors in Virginia polo, Dragonfly/Pineapples earned their ticket to the final on an undefeated run, while Point to Point/Highfields were in search of redemption suffering their only loss of the tournament at the hands of their finals’ opponent 8-7. Despite trailing at the half, Point to Point/Highfields evened out the score in the fifth, and a forceful defense held Dragonfly/Pineapples to one goal in the final two chukkers to complete the comeback and claim the National Eight Goal title 11-9.
Dragonfly/Pineapples’ Merrall Echezarreta leans into the bump on Point to Point/Highfields’ Bautista Micheletti.
Playing together in Virginia for the summer season, Smith Liss shared, “Fran and Bauti have been a really phenomenal duo to have on the team and both have been a pleasure to play with and learn from.” Reflecting on the strategy established by Point to Pont/Highfields, Smith Liss continued, “each member of the team knew what their role was and what they had to be responsible for. Each game, everyone showed up prepared and ready to give every ounce of effort. The teams were tough and if you weren’t giving 100 percent throughout the entirety of the games, you weren’t going to come out on top.”
Praising the defensive abilities of Smith Liss and the Gunnell’s (Nelson and Brianna), Micheletti expressed, “we try to stay as open as possible, and we have a nice balance on the team. Michael covers us in the back so I can go forward as the three and Fran as the two. The Gunnell’s are both really good players with lots of experience and when you give them the pass, they’re going to score.”
Playing in the number four position, Michael Smith Liss provided defensive coverage for Point to Point/Highfields.
Completing bracket play on top of the standings, Dragonfly/Pineapples quickly picked up where they left off with goals from Bignoli and Ravina to give their team an early 2-0 advantage. Exchanging goals in the second with Micheletti and Rodriguez-Mera adding their name to the scoreboard, Point-to-Point’s Micheletti proved to be a formidable opponent in the third, striking three times, including twice from the penalty line. Hitting a key conversion of his own, Ravina’s Penalty 2 added to a balanced offensive effort from Echezarreta and Bignoli to maintain a narrow 8-6 Dragonfly/Pineapples lead at the half.
Point to Point/Highfields’ Bautista Micheletti hits a neckshot alongside Dragonfly/Pineapples’ Marcos Bignoli.
Answering with a shutout fourth chukker, Point to Point’s Highfields formidable defensive efforts were accompanied by two conversions from Micheletti to tie the match 8-all. Playing in the number one position, an injury to Nelson Gunnell gave his wife, Breanna Gunnell, the chance to step-in for the final, “we [wanted] to work together and use all four players to play a balanced game,” noted Breanna. Nelson added, “the team dynamic was to be sound defensively man-to-man, but once the ball is in our control, we spread the field in several directions to give [Micheletti and Rodriguez-Mera] the opportunity of the open man.” For Micheletti, sticking to Point to Point’s open style in the final chukkers of play was crucial, “I knew we were playing our polo, so I told my [team] to be patient because the goals were going to come.”
Continuing to apply pressure in the fifth, Point to Point/Highfields held Dragonfly/Pineapples to a single Penalty 4 while taking over offensively to add three combined goals from Rodriguez-Mera and Micheletti and power Point to Point/Highfields to the 9-11 National Eight Goal championship victory.
Most Valuable Player Francisco Rodriguez-Mera carries the ball ahead of Dragonfly/Pineapples’ Marcos Bignoli.
Leading Point to Point/Highfields with a 5-goal handicap, plus three goals in the final and invaluable leadership contributions, Francisco Rodriguez-Mera was awarded Most Valuable Player. “I’m grateful because it’s always very nice to have some kind of special recognition,” shared Rodriguez-Mera, “but I think it’s thanks to the great execution the four of us had on the field and also to the people who work behind each player.”
Also taking home Best Playing Pony honors was Rodriguez-Mera’s Argentine mare Bongui, “she was bred by my friend Tomas Reinoso and played the second and sixth chukker,” added Rodriguez-Mera, “I felt very comfortable on her and that was important in the last chukker.”
Best Playing Pony Bongui, played and owned by Francisco Rodriguez-Mera (Francisco Jr.), pictured with Fernando Peralta.
Reflecting on the utilization of strategy in their National Eight Goal win, Point to Point/Highfields, Smith Liss expressed, “[we were] patient, thoughtful with the ball and tried to stretch the field out as much as possible. We knew we had to contribute and stay focused. I’m grateful to all the grooms and veterinarians who helped prepare the horses and make sure they were ready for us. Without them, we wouldn’t been able to do as well as we did.”
Already back in eight-goal action, both Point to Point/Highfields and Dragonfly/Pineapples have taken their rivalry to the Regional President’s Cup with Dragonfly/Pineapples taking a 13-12 overtime victory in bracket play on Saturday, August 13. Point to Point has also made a splash recently in the 14-goal Eastern Challenge adding Felipe Viana* to their roster for a 13-8 win over Beverly Salamander (Wil Ballhaus, Bill Ballhaus, Jorge “Tolito” Fernandez Ocampo Jr., Manuel Sunblad).
Eight-goal action continues at Beverly Polo Club for both Point to Point/Highfields and Dragonfly/Pineapples in the Regional President’s Cup.
With both the Regional President’s Cup and Eastern Challenge still up for grabs, the summer polo season at Beverly is primed for a thrilling conclusion. “The teams that have been playing have been very competitive,” summarized Nelson, “most games have come down to a pivotal moment or play, either at the end of a game or in overtime. It has been a great summer of polo and the quality of players would be competitive at their levels anywhere in the world!”
*Felipe Viana 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 ©Joanne Maisano.