On Sunday, March 27, the first-ever Division II Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship took place at Legends Polo Club in Kaufman, Texas. Vying for the title, the final saw the University of Connecticut Huskies (Kylie Dalton, Rylyn Koger, Elizabeth Leudesdorff, Madison Robicheau, Toni Moore) fiercely battle the Texas Tech University Red Raiders (Lexie Harlan, Brianna Wolkober, Mary Kate Ratliff, Jordyn Rizzuto, Tatijana Mirski) in a groundbreaking game for intercollegiate polo.
“We have not won a national title since 2008 and to get this opportunity to do it again was just amazing, not only for our team and players, but for our program as well.” – Kylie Dalton, UCONN
Both teams receiving a bye in the first round of play, UCONN edged out UC Davis in a narrow 8-7 semifinal win, while Texas Tech defeated Michigan State 12-9 to nab their spot in the championship final. A high scoring, back-and-forth first half, led to a Huskies takeover in the remaining two chukkers to secure the 15-11 win and the inaugural championship title for UCONN.
Leading scorer Leudesdorff shared UCONN’s game plan going into the finals, “Our strategy for the game was to stay composed and take each play as it came. Our main goal was to communicate and work together as a team. We wanted to stay collected and not let the score, whether it was in our favor or not, affect our playing.”
Texas Tech’s Lexie Harlan taps the ball along the boards ahead of UCONN’s Elizabeth Leudesdorff.
Making careful and conscious efforts to control the throw-ins while simultaneously igniting their offense from the start, UCONN’s Dalton, Koger and Leudesdorff combined forces for five unanswered goals in the first chukker to deny the home-turf Texans any scoring opportunities.
Dalton, who began playing five years ago at UCONN, discussed her team’s strong start, saying, “The first chukker’s success came from our team’s emphasis on having a good, strong start before the first whistle blew […] we made sure to come out aggressive in the first lineup and win that right off the bat. We knew we had the strong side of our string of horses and wanted to capitalize off of that.”
UCONN’s Kylie Dalton reaches to tap the ball forward with Texas Tech’s Mary Kate Ratliff defending at her hip.
Hungry to get on the board, Texas Tech’s Mirsky and Harlan were able to re-energize the Red Raiders in the second chukker, with Mirsky scoring three from the field and Harlan scoring one from the field. Also ramping up their defensive strategy, the Red Raiders were able to keep the Huskies off the board entirely to bring Texas Tech within one goal of UCONN at halftime.
“We went into halftime with a fresh mentality, the score was 0-0, everything started from scratch.” – Kylie Dalton
Koger spoke about UCONN’s second chukker troubles, explaining, “We realized we were not working as a team and and getting frustrated with one another. We needed to talk more, play off of each other, and communicate in order to come back and stay on top. We had to remember that we came here to win, we worked hard to be the best, adn this was our chance to prove that. We could not let one scoreless chukker rattle us and keep us away from reaching our goals.” Agreeing with Koger, Dalton added, “We went into halftime with a fresh mentality, the score was 0-0, everything started from scratch.”
UCONN’s Elizabeth Leudesdorff makes the hook on Texas Tech’s Tatijana Mirski.
Clearly recognizing a need for change if they wanted to win, UCONN completely revamped their game going into the second half. With a total of seven goals from the field off of Leudesdorff’s mallet, a stunning two-pointer from Koger, and the help of a pony goal, the Huskies were able to put an impressive 10 goals on the board between the third and fourth chukkers.
The Red Raiders attempted to keep pace, with Mirsky finding the goal three times, Ratliff adding to the board with two of her own, a Penalty 1 conversion and pony goal, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to overcome UCONN’s offensive prowess. As the final horn sounded, the Huskies led 15-11 over the Red Raiders to capture the very first Division II Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship title.
UCONN – Rylyn Koger, Toni Moore, Elizabeth Leudesdorff, Madison Robicheau and Kylie Dalton holding Coach Anders Carlton.
“We each practice very hard, put a lot of time and effort into this sport, and this weekend, it all paid off. Every second of stress, every late night at the barn practicing, every past loss made us better and led us to this point.” – Rylyn Koger
Speaking to her seven second-half goals, Leudesdorff shed light on her mindset, saying, “My main strategy when I’m playing is to play as if the score is 0-0. No matter how much we might be winning or losing, I play to the absolute best of my ability and try not to let the score get to my head.”
Anders Carlton, 2019 UCONN graduate and current coach, spoke proudly about the Huskies’ win and their sheer determination to take home the title, remarking, “I think they did a really great job of playing off of each other, being positive and encouraging each other and the outcome was great!”
Parents of the UCONN girls also chimed in, praising their year-round dedication to improving. Jake Koger, Rylyn Koger’s father, shared his respect for the newly-crowned champions. “These kids have been up early in the morning working horses all year long,” Koger revealed. “Even during COVID, they were there working, training, and playing hard. They played as a team and it was really an outstanding performance.”
Texas Tech’s Lexie Harlan on a breakaway.
For many players like Texas Tech’s Harlan, this tournament, along with the creation of Division II polo, was one of the first opportunities to play at both an equally matched and competitive level. Harlan took time to note her gratitude for making it this far and being able to participate in the tournament. “I didn’t start playing until spring of 2020,” Harlan said. “I played one chukker at a prelim—This is the first time I’ve ever been able to compete! So I got to finish out my last season and it’s been amazing.”
“The UCONN polo team is my family. The girls on my team are my best friends and I am so lucky to have been their captain.” – Rylyn Koger
While many coaches and supporters of Intercollegiate/Interscholastic polo have championed the concept of the Division I/Division II, one of the idea’s largest supporters was the late Texas Tech coach Clyde Waddell. Waddell believed that a second division could not only enhance the experience for all college teams, but it could help the teams recruit within their schools and increase funding from club sports programs. When Waddell passed away in 2016, players and alumni picked up the torch of the Texas Tech Polo team and other coaches carried on with his thoughts in mind on making a second division of collegiate polo a reality.
“This was his dream,” said current Texas Tech coach and alumnus Ashley Owen about Clyde Waddell. “For Tech to play in the final of the first Division II tournament is really special. We all know he would be here yelling ‘BATTLE SPEED!’”
2022 Division II Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship All-Stars: Liliana Gonzalez (UC Davis), Elizabeth Leudesdorff (UCONN), Grace Grotnik (SMU), Mary Kate Ratliff (Texas Tech).
“I think the addition of D2 this year was an amazing decision,” said UCONN’s Koger. “Not just because we won nationals, but because it allowed other teams who are just starting out or have smaller programs to be competitive against teams with similar skill levels.” Leudesdorff echoed her sentiments, “For so many years I would see the same teams competing in the collegiate national over and over. It’s incredible to see so many more teams and people being given the opportunity to fight for a national championship win.”
All-Stars in the Division II Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship included: Elizabeth Leudesdorff (UCONN), Grace Grotnik (Southern Methodist University), Mary Kate Ratliff (Texas Tech) and Liliana Gonzalez (UC Davis). The Sportsmanship Award was presented to Jessica Liu (Michigan State), while Freida Witmer (Skidmore) was awarded the Horsemanship Award.
2022 Division II Women’s Sportsmanship Award Recipient: Jessica Liu (Michigan State). Presented by USPA Arena Committee Chair and Governor-at-Large Robin Sanchez.
Best Playing String was presented to Southern Methodist University while Bil and Will Walton’s Katniss took home Best Playing Pony honors. Adding another BPP blanket to her growing collection, Katniss also recently won the award in the 2021 Southwestern Circuit Sportsmanship Cup, Texas Arena League (2021 and 2022) and competed in the 2021 U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® for the winning team Dallas Polo. Many players were quick to praise Katniss, with Leudesdorff noting her “incredible bump” and ability to “turn on a dime.” UC Davis’ Liliana Gonzalez also appreciated Katniss’ knowledge of the sport and willingness to play, sharing, “I didn’t have to think about the horse, the horse took me everywhere.”
UCONN’s Madison Robicheau, Elizabeth Leudesdorff and Kylie Dalton embrace following their historic victory.
Celebrating a historic win in this first-of-its-kind tournament, graduating senior and UCONN captain Koger shared her appreciation and love for her team. “The UCONN polo team is my family,” said Koger. “The girls on my team are my best friends and I am so lucky to have been their captain.” Leudesdorff added, “My favorite part about being on the UCONN polo team is definitely my teammates and coach. I’m a freshman, I’ve only been playing with these girls since September, but we have incredible chemistry both on and off the field.”
With this win, UCONN brought home their eleventh national title, eight of which have now been won by the women’s team. Dalton expressed her pride in UCONN’s triumphant victory, sharing “We have not won a national title since 2008 and to get this opportunity to do it again was just amazing, not only for our team and players, but for our program as well.”
All photos courtesy of ©David Murrell.