Returning for the third consecutive year, the National Youth Tournament Series (NTYS) Girls’ Championship culminated in a matchup between Nebraska Sunset (Sofia Ward, Ava Rose Hinkson, Reagan Leitner, Winifred Branscum) and Electric Charge (Isabelle Brockett, Victoria Picha, Sophia DeAngelis, Madison Jordan) at the picturesque New Bridge Polo & Country Club in Aiken, South Carolina on Sunday, September 17. After a morning of heavy rain, the final was delayed until the afternoon and moved to the impressively dry Field 5. Controlling the match from the outset, Nebraska Sunset dominated the field, quickly scoring three field goals to take the lead in the first half. The ladies in pink never let up and maintained their lead throughout the game, defeating Electric Charge 7-2.5 to win the NYTS Girls’ Championship title.
“This game’s all about adaptability, so when you can go and play on different teams and with different players and with different playing styles, it opens your world up.” – Nebraska Sunset’s Ava Rose Hinkson
Displaying the ability to adapt quickly to new challenges, each player’s horsemanship, and skill was further honed by coaches Jesse Bray* (Nebraska Sunset) and Sarah Wiseman (Electric Charge). Both coaches served as advisors to teams in the Girls’ Division and the Open Division, with Wiseman being the first female coach in NYTS history.
Playing a four-chukker match, Nebraska Sunset maintained possession for much of the first half. Dynamic duo Leitner and Branscum were quick to put pink on the scoreboard, both scoring two goals before halftime. Communication proved to be key in Nebraska Sunset’s success.
“If Reagan [Leitner] went up, she would tell me to stay back, and if I went up, I’d tell her to stay back,” explained Branscum. “We had a very dynamic gameplay—they [Electric Charge] couldn’t quite track us down.” Branscum credited her two other teammates, Ward and Hinkson, for playing their part in the team’s strategy. “We had two amazing team players in Sofia and Ava, who just pushed so hard and cleared the way for both of us. We all understood our jobs and none of us were selfish. I think that’s what really won it for us in the end.”
Electric Charge’s Madison Jordan goes for the hook on Nebraska Sunset’s Winifred Branscum.
“We all understood our jobs and none of us were selfish. I think that’s what really won it for us in the end.” – Nebraska Sunset’s Winifred Branscum
All teams had the opportunity to practice against each other on Thursday, September 14, the day before the semifinals, allowing Nebraska Sunset to study Electric Charge’s strengths and weaknesses. “We noticed that when we initiated defense we had the upper hand,” said Hinkson. “We had to own that position first and always be ahead of the play, thinking and setting ourselves up for the next play.”
Horsemanship Award Recipient Reagan Leitner charges through the goal posts.
“We knew this team had an incredible offense, they scored some amazing goals in their semifinal,” said Leitner. “Our biggest goal was defense first, offense second, and then trusting each other.”
Nebraska Sunset’s strong defensive strategy paid off. Never losing heart, Electric Charge was able to convert two points in the second half but was unable to catch up and watched the pink jerseys pull away with a five goal lead in the final chukker. As the official apparel supplier of the NYTS Championship weekend, U.S. Polo Assn. outfitted players with whites and t-shirts and provided gear bags and watches to the winners. Winifred Branscum was named Most Valuable Player and Reagan Leitner was presented with the Horsemanship Award for her outstanding and consistent demonstration of equine care both on and off the field. Aurora Knox received the Sportsmanship Award for her continued positive attitude, fairness, and support of her peers throughout the tournament.
For part of the Nebraska Sunset team, this was not only the first NYTS win, but their first time qualifying for the championship. “This year I wanted to chill out and have a nice, fun end to my senior year,” said 18-year-old Ward. “Then I got an email that I qualified for the NYTS championship—of course, I was going to go!” Ward, who hails from Hillside Farm Polo Club in Richfield, Wisconsin, started riding in the hunter/jumper discipline with trainer Margie Paur prior to picking up polo. “I don’t come from a polo family, I don’t have horses at my house,” explained Ward. “I did hunter/jumpers for Margie for a long time, and then she needed help at the polo field. I started grooming and it snowballed from there.” Ward credits her interscholastic coach, Paur, for much of her success in the sport. “She’s the whole reason I’m able to play. She introduced me to the sport and supplied horses for me the past five or six years. I’m so grateful for her and couldn’t have done it without her.”
Nebraska Sunset’s Ava Rose Hinkson leans into the bump on Electric Charge’s Victoria Picha.
“I don’t come from a polo family; I don’t have horses at my house. She [Margie Paur] is the whole reason I’m able to play. She introduced me to the sport and supplied horses for me the past five or six years. I’m so grateful for her and couldn’t have done it without her.” – Nebraska Sunset’s Sophia Ward
Other teammates were making their second NYTS Championship appearance. Branscum, who won the NYTS Girls’ Championship in 2022 with Electric Charge, returned to repeat history. “I was very fortunate my first year when I played on the Electric Charge team with three amazing girls,” said Branscum. “We started talking once we found out the teams—that’s what I did this year as well. I created a group chat and we started talking to each other and getting to know each other, even talked a little bit of strategy. That’s what really makes the difference.”
Most Valuable Player Winifred Branscum led Nebraska Sunset with three goals in the final.
Both Branscum and Leitner, who brought their own string of horses to this year’s tournament, noted the advantages of playing their own mounts. “Being able to come in with my own horses was not only an advantage but was very emotional,” told Branscum. “I’m very proud of the four horses I played in the final.” Leitner, an Aiken native, shared a similar sentiment. “It was so special and I’m very thankful that it was here [Aiken, South Carolina] because I really wanted another opportunity to play my own horses and see how they would fare. Having that ability to know your horses is very important—it gave me more confidence to be on my horses, to know their power and their capability.” One of Leitner’s horses, Terca, was named Best Playing Pony after an impressive turnout. “We bought Terca two years ago from Matias Magrini and she’s the best part of my string,” said Leitner. “She’s my solid, my first chukker spare, my starter in the fourth…she’s my rock. I’ve never had a bad chukker on her and I almost always score a goal with her. She’s sturdy and nobody can catch her. She’s so special and I’m super blessed with her.”
Best Playing Pony Terca, played by Robyn Leitner, owned by Larry Leitner and presented by USPA Governor-at-Large Haley Bryan.
This was Leitner’s third and final year playing in the NYTS tournament. The promising 19-year-old player plans to compete in the 8-goal Northrup Knox Cup, which starts next week. “I’m really excited just to travel a bit and hopefully do something in Florida this year.”
For Hinkson, winning the NYTS Championship in her final year was an unmatched experience. “This year was my last year, so I decided to give it a good go and it was the best-case scenario,” said Hinkson, who transitioned to polo from cross-country six years ago. “It was so much fun and I’m so glad we did it. It will definitely be one for the books.”
Sportsmanship Award Recipient Aurora Knox, presented by NYTS Chair Chrys Beal.
When asked about any advice to give those considering participating in the NYTS program, Hinkson said: “Do it. Take it seriously but have fun! You’re going to play with a lot of different people and learn so much. This game’s all about adaptability, so when you can go and play on different teams and with different players and with different playing styles, it opens your world up.”
“Our biggest goal was defense first, offense second, and then trusting each other” – Nebraska Sunset’s Reagan Leitner
Leitner echoed her teammate’s advice, adding “Absolutely join! It’s not only the opportunity but it’s the friendship. It’s the people you meet, the exposure you get, the connections you make—it’s everything. It’s an incredible opportunity. Absolutely go for it.”
Nebraska Sunset celebrates their resounding victory.
*Jesse Bray is Team USPA alumnus. Team USPA is a 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 ©Kaile Roos.