Contested for the first time since 2019, the long-awaited Division I Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship was held at Virginia Polo Inc. in Charlottesville, Virginia. Cancelled for two consecutive years during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 marked the first time the National Intercollegiate Championships have been played for since 2019.
A long held friendly feud and meeting in an all-too-familiar rematch of the Women’s Southeastern Regionals, the University of Virginia Cavaliers (Elizabeth Owens, Alana Benz, Maddie Grant, Grace Burgert, Katie Define) geared up on their home turf hoping to avenge their previous loss to the University of Kentucky Wildcats (Louisa Huber, Avery Evans, Lila Bennett, Taylor Nackers, Grace Beck) in the final on Saturday, April 9. Silencing their opponents and gaining the lead in the second, UVA’s strong offense and tireless effort enabled them to extend their lead with every passing chukker and emerge victorious in a captivating 17-9 win.
UVA’s Maddie Grant hits a booming shot down the boards.
“The difference between the final and regionals is that we were controlling the game today. At Regionals, I just felt like we got pushed around a lot and it was very physical.” – Maddie Grant, UVA.
UK’s Avery Evans leans into the bump on UVA’s Alana Benz.
On Thursday, April 7, UK delivered a decisive 25-6 win over Oklahoma State University in the first semifinal to earn their place in the championship game. Shortly after, UVA triumphed 21-9 over defending champions Texas A&M in their respective semifinal.
With everything on the line for UK senior Huber and UVA seniors Grant and Burgert, tensions ran high leading up to the first throw-in of the final. Starting out on the UK string of horses, play was back-and-forth and highly aggressive, both teams holding each other to just one goal to end the first chukker. After their first meeting earlier in the season, UVA was prepared this time around for UK’s physicality. “I think they’re really aggressive and that was something that caught us a little flat footed at regionals,” Burgert, who played in the second half for UVA, shared. “They just came out with a lot of intensity. After regionals, we really worked our butts off to match that… it kind of came at the right time for us because it reignited what we needed. We had had such a successful season that we had gotten a little complacent, and so that was what we needed. And we were like, they aren’t winning again!”
Riding a string of horses from Berube Polo, UVA delivered an explosive response to a slow first chukker, scoring four goals from the field, three of which came off the mallet of Grant and one from Owens. UVA’s increased defensive effort also kept UK off the scoreboard entirely, giving the Cavaliers the edge 5-1 by the end of the second chukker.
Integrating a sports psychologist into their competition regime, the Cavaliers has two team sessions beginning in November. “We’ve always said ‘LFC’ which means loose, free and cocky,” said Burgert. “That was something that the psychologist really wanted us to play with as a mentality—believing in ourselves because we were all capable players, and we all know that, so we should play like that. We should be confident in ourselves and confident in our teammates.” Maddie clarified the sentiments, “I think there’s a fine line between being confident in your own ability and being cocky,” said Grant regarding her team’s ability to rally and remain unflappable. “I think we really channeled it as confidence in our teammates and confidence in backing each other up.”
Still firing on all cylinders, Grant, riding her favorite polo pony, Valentina, worked alongside Benz to add three more goals for UVA before the half. A fourth pony goal, brought the Cavalier total score up to nine headed into halftime. Simultaneously showcasing their defensive prowess, UVA held UK to just one penalty conversion from Huber to end the half 9-2 in favor of UVA.
UK was able to catch UVA a bit off-guard at the opening of the second half. With several fouls committed by UVA, UK capitalized on several opportunities to get back in the game and narrow the gap. Taking full advantage, Huber scored a field goal and sunk Penalty 3, while Bennett made the most of a Penalty 5b to secure the first 2-pointer of the game. Both Huber and Bennett’s penalty conversions were scored within the last 10 seconds of the fourth chukker, sparking a great roaring cheers from diehard fans on the sidelines. Adding another penalty conversion to the tally, Grant picked up her sixth goal to end the chukker with UVA maintaining the lead 10-6.
Exploding offensively in the final two chukkers, Grant’s unrelenting play and steadfast determination resulted in six additional goals for UVA. A goal from Owens in the fifth also gave UVA extra room to breathe. The Cavaliers were able to hold the Wildcats scoreless for the second time in the fifth chukker and kept them to just three goals in the sixth to solidify a resounding 17-9 win, their first since 2017.
UVA’s newfound confidence in themselves helped transcend their level of play as well. Grant noted UVA’s change in playing style since their disappointing regional loss to UK, remarking, “at regionals, we tried to get around UK’s physicality and use our horsepower to stop and turn and evade it, but you really can’t get away. So from that day on, we had practice and we had to be physical and strong. We needed not to be winning the next play, we needed to be winning this play! So that was the biggest thing we changed.”
UVA’s Maddie Grant separates from the pack.
“This win was not just for today or this year, it was for all of the years we’ve missed because of COVID-19.” – Maddie Grant, UVA
Finally grasping the prestigious national championship, seniors Grant and Burgert were elated to be able to leave their mark on intercollegiate polo, especially after so many years of waiting. Grant recognized that, “this win was not just for today or this year, it was for all of the years we’ve missed because of COVID-19.”
For Grant, a collegiate championship was a previously unfulfilled expectation, having displayed powerful success throughout her interscholastic career with five consecutive national final appearances and four interscholastic titles with Maryland Polo Club before moving to college. Grant was overjoyed to finally claim the elusive title in her polo career. “It means the world. These girls are my best friends and there’s no one I’d rather win with.” Similarly, Burgert shared, “I’m just really proud of my team, myself, and our horses, for finally getting to do what we know we’ve been capable of for the past few years. It’s really rewarding to see all our hard work and my whole time at UVA pay off in my fourth year.”
2022 Division I Women’s Intercollegiate Championship All-Stars: Joanie Jackson (Texas A&M), Alana Benz (University of Virginia), Lila Bennett (University of Kentucky), Maddie Grant (University of Virginia).
All-Stars in the Division I Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship included Joanie Jackson (Texas A&M), Alana Benz (UVA), Lila Bennett (UK) and Maddie Grant (UVA). The Connie Upchurch Award for sportsmanship was presented to Madison Lange (Texas A&M), while Hannah Reynolds (Texas A&M) received the David Wenning Award for horsemanship, presented by his children, Michael and Kristen Wenning.
Best Playing String was awarded to the University of Virginia. Their string also included Best Playing Pony, Bella. A fan favorite around Virginia Polo Club, Benz shed light on why she’s so loved, saying, “Bella not only is a dream to play, but she also has the best demeanor and is so easy to get along with. She’s great on a set, great to single or stick and ball, and overall has no issues. So anyone can jump on her and play a great chukker!”
Owens also chimed in on Bella’s kindhearted disposition, sharing, “Everyone loves her for her personality too. She is the sweetest pony and loves affection and cuddles.” Throughout the tournament, Bella was played by Texas A&M’s Madison Lange in her respective semifinal game, UK’s Evans in the third chukker of the final, and UVA’s Owens in the last chukker of the final. A big admirer of Bella, Owens also spoke to her athleticism on the field, sharing, “She is all around very athletic and great at everything. She will immediately launch forward into a play and is incredibly speedy for her small size. She also has an amazing bump—she is just all around perfect.”
UK’s Avery Evans on a breakaway riding Best Playing Pony, Bella.
This win was even more meaningful for the Cavaliers because it took place at their home arena surrounded by an increasingly boisterous group of fans and supporters. Burgert noted the very clear difference in sideline energy that helped fuel UVA’s success and ensure a better outcome than their regionals.“It was really nice for us to have everybody here because for our regionals it was spring break so nobody showed up. It wasn’t right without our club team. Our club team is a really an important part of the club. It’s not just the varsity teams that care about the program.”
UVA’s Maddie Grant takes the ball down the arena with UK’s Louisa Huber in pursuit.
Grant also shared how important it was to UVA to be able to win in their home arena, saying, “We’ve always wanted to have nationals out here, so we practice out here as often as we can. It’s the best arena. It’s so fun, it’s big, you can play open. We knew that would play to our strengths. Because Kentucky is very physical, out here you can get around it and go. You have space to run and it’s more like playing on the grass. We’re really happy Lou put in a lot of hours on the tractor dragging and we were really happy to be out here and bring it home!”
Despite how much time he had to spend on the tractor dragging the arena, UVA Coach Lou Lopez knew that the effort would be well worth it. Losing several players to graduation this spring, Lopez reflected on the future of UVA polo, remarking, “I’m graduating two boys and two girls. The dynamic with the boys that are left is going to be really good because they get along really well. I’m excited to be working with them over the course of next year. And the same with the girls. We’ll be here again!”
The Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship Final will air for the first time on ESPNU. Relive the action, Sunday, April 17 at 6:00pm ET.
All photos courtesy of ©Oana Moore.