The conclusion of the Eastern Challenge was played at Beverly Polo Club in The Plains, Virginia, on Sunday, August 28. The match featured a welcome showdown between freshly crowned National Eight Goal champions Point to Point (Francisco Mera-Rodriguez, Felipe Viana, Bautista Micheletti, Nelson Gunnell, sub. Audrey Wilde) and formidable hometown challenger Beverly Salamander (Wil Ballhaus, Bill Ballhaus, Jorge “Tolito” Fernandez Ocampo Jr., Manuel Sundblad).
“When you win, you feel everything is going right and when you get too comfortable you don’t really improve. We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t get too comfortable. If you don’t change things up—all of a sudden there’s a chance the other team can get you and you can lose. Especially when you’re playing against Beverly, a very good team that’s well mounted at their home club.” – Felipe Viana
Point to Point’s golden ticket to Sunday’s final came on the heels of an undefeated record in bracket play, defeating Beverly Salamander 13-8 early in competition and then again proving their prowess with an 18-15 victory over Astro Core Real Estate. While Beverly Salamander fell in their debut game to Point to Point, they were able to rally and secure their spot in the final after a narrow 16-15 win over Astro Core Real Estate.
Beverly Salamander’s Manuel Sunblad and Point to Point’s Bautista Micheletti rally for position. ©Tony Gibson
Going into the title match, Viana and his Point to Point teammates were determined to stay on high alert despite their continued success. He shared, “When you win, you feel everything is going right and when you get too comfortable you don’t really improve. We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t get too comfortable. If you don’t change things up—all of a sudden there’s a chance the other team can get you and you can lose. Especially when you’re playing against Beverly, a very good team that’s well mounted at their home club.”
Rodriguez-Mera also chimed in with Point to Point’s winning strategy throughout the tournament. “The strategy was always the same. Play simple, communicate, focus on defense and always mark our man. At this level, the simpler the play, the better the game and it’s easier to work with the team.” Micheletti added, “We have a nice balanced team. Everyone has their task and we have to play for each other and I think that’s the key. We knew that if we did that, we were going to see the results.”
Beverly Salamander’s Jorge Fernandez “Tolito” Ocampo Jr. on a breakaway with Point to Point’s Felipe Viana in pursuit. ©Tony Gibson
Capitalizing on their home field advantage early on, Beverly Salamander’s Ocampo slammed two goals through the uprights to bolster his team’s one-goal handicap and create a three-goal lead. Their strong start, however, was offset by a foul, resulting in a Penalty 2 for Point to Point. Micheletti’s successful conversion spearheaded his team’s offensive drive, invigorating Point to Point to score again and come within one goal of Beverly Salamander to finish out the first chukker.
Despite trailing 2-3 at the end of the first chukker, Point to Point’s Rodriguez-Mera noted that he never had doubts about his team’s ability to rise to the occasion. “The truth is, we were always focused on our games. We had a good, very balanced team and we knew how we could play.”
Beverly Salamander’s Manuel Sunblad reaches for the hook on Point to Point’s Bautista Micheletti. ©Tony Gibson
Wilde echoed a similar sentiment, sharing, “Despite the other team coming back with some good plays to tie the game, we continued to push and did not get frustrated. That extra effort and trust in our team is what allowed us to pull ahead for the win.”
A newcomer to Point to Point, Viana’s addition to the team was also a huge asset, especially since he was able to fit seamlessly into the team dynamic. Micheletti shared, “Felipe assimilated well to the team. I think he understood what type of polo we were playing from the start, so it was easy for us to play with him. We had a strategy in the National Eight Goal, and we did the same in the 14-goal with Felipe and it worked very well.”
Point to Point’s Felipe Viana making a powerful buckshot. ©Tony Gibson
“This is where I got my first job in Middleburg, Virginia, in 2009-2010 and I haven’t been back until now. Beverly didn’t exist then. I came here to work for Maureen Brennan. I built my career from here. I came here when I was 3-goals and didn’t know anything. I just had five mallets and my gear. Now, I come here with a full trailer of horses at 6-goals and that’s very gratifying for me, all the hard work. Coming here and playing and winning and being surrounded with such great people. I’m very grateful. I hope I can come back.” – Felipe Viana
The second chukker scoring began with a Penalty 4 conversion off the mallet of Ocampo. Viana and Ocampo traded goals, but a combined offensive effort from Micheletti and Rodriguez-Mera catapulted Point to Point to their first lead of the game, finishing off the chukker ahead of Beverly Salamander by a narrow 6-5 margin. Two additional field goals from Viana and a cherry on top from Rodriguez-Mera gave Point to Point a welcome boost going into halftime. And with a strong defensive presence on the field, Beverly Salamander was limited to just one goal from Sundblad, giving Point to Point the 9-6 advantage at the end of the half.
Giving a lot of credit to Beverly Salamander, Rodriguez-Mera acknowledged the strength of their team and was grateful for them inspiring better play out of Point to Point. “The game was very tough, honestly, and the other games were also really difficult. We were sleeping a little and thankfully we woke up and pulled it together.”
With time to regroup, Beverly Salamander emerged strong out of the floodgates, using an early Penalty 2 conversion from Ocampo to turn momentum back in their favor. Wil Balhaus added his name to the scoresheet and Sundblad captured his second goal of the day to tie things up 9-all. But a foul from Beverly Salamander created space for Point to Point, with Micheletti first converting a Penalty 3 and then navigating to goal to end the fourth chukker up 11-9.
Beverly Salamander’s Jorge Fernandez “Tolito” Ocampo Jr. with a buckshot out of the goalmouth. ©Tony Gibson
Unwilling to give up, Beverly Salamander found their footing again in the fifth chukker on both the offensive and defensive fronts, with Sundblad scoring twice and all of their team working hard to force a complete shutout for Point to Point, leaving the score in an 11-all deadlock entering the final chukker. With the fate of the tournament to be decided in the final seven-and-a-half minutes, Point to Point mobilized their plan of attack, with Rodriguez-Mera weaving his way to goal twice and Micheletti delivering another successful Penalty 2 conversion. Ocampo scored late in the chukker, but it was not enough to offset Point to Point’s momentum, delivering a 14-12 win for Point to Point as the timer ran out.
Pleased with the outcome for Point to Point, Viana commended both his teammates and his competitors. “We came in strong and it was a very tight game. The first time we played Beverly Salamander, we won with a better lead. This time, a typical final, we were tied at the end of the game and were lucky enough to win by two. It was fun, very intense and the team held up great. I want to thank Nelson Gunnell for bringing me over and all my teammates.”
Also appreciative of his competitors, Bill Ballhaus added, “Nelson Gunnell always puts together super competitive teams in Virginia. This year, he did it again and it’s no surprise to me they came out on top. They played incredibly today. I was really proud of how our team played. It was a huge challenge for us, but I think we put on a great performance and certainly gave it our best. We’re happy with the outcome because we left it all on the field.”
Point to Point’s Felipe Viana follows on a deep neck shot. ©Tony Gibson
For his four-goal performance and countless defensive contributions, Francisco Rodriguez-Mera was awarded Most Valuable Player. Attributing his success to his team, he shared, “The team played really well, it’s always nice to have a good performance and get this result. To win the 14-goal–we are lucky. It’s not easy.”
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Tolito Ocampo’s 7-year-old Argentine bred One Mesera. “Mesera, in English is the one who serves the drinks, a bartender. She’s from Argentina. I picked her from my father. She’s a really nice, handy pony, but I didn’t think she was going to run. I brought her because there’s some power to her.” He continued, “As soon as she arrived in the U.S., she was the best horse I had. I played her in the first, fourth and sixth chukkers today. The funny thing about her is that my father-in-law was telling me to take this one, this is going to be your best horse. He was right, I’m very happy with her. I think she has a big future, she’s not even at her top now.”
Best Playing Pony One Mesera, played and owned by Jorge Fernandez “Tolito” Ocampo Jr. Pictured with Isai Zamora, Isaias Barrios and Josue Tercero. ©Rebekah Pizana
A particularly special win for Viana, coming back to Virginia brings up memories of his first polo job and really highlights his growth as a player over the years. “This is where I got my first job in Middleburg, Virginia, in 2009-2010 and I haven’t been back until now. Beverly didn’t exist then. I came here to work for Maureen Brennan. I built my career from here. I came here when I was 3-goals and didn’t know anything. I just had five mallets and my gear. Now, I come here with a full trailer of horses at 6-goals and that’s very gratifying for me, all the hard work. Coming here and playing and winning and being surrounded with such great people. I’m very grateful. I hope I can come back.”
*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.