Sport of teens: Young players shine at youth polo tournament

Hanan Fadil narrowed her eyes. Readjusted her grip. And leaned off her pony.

Fadil’s kinetic energy stood in stark contrast to the tranquil backdrop: rows of grapevines laid out in ordered lines, visitors lazing in the balmy weather sipping on rosé and viognier, the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance fading into the sky.

Then, the 17-year-old struck. 

As the white ball bounced through the perfectly manicured pitch in front of her, she leaned down, and clinched the reins of her pony.

She smashed the 3.5-inch hunk of plastic with her long mallet. It careened through the air towards goal.

“Yes Hanan! Thataway girl! You show those boys,” one spectator called out.

That shout, along with the cheers of the more than 1,000 spectators in attendance to watch children as young as 8 and as old as 19 compete against each other, is a hallmark of the annual Roseland Polo National Youth Tournament Series.

Fadil, along with youth from across the country and as far away as California, were fighting Sunday afternoon for a spot to compete in the National Youth Tournament Series later this year.

“This tournament serves as a springboard to get to the national tournament this fall,” Beth Supik, a longtime professional polo player and tournament manager told The Daily Progress. “This area has some of the best youth talent in the country, and I travel across the country with the Polo Association. I am so happy these kids get to experience this atmosphere.”

The national qualifier takes place at King Family Vineyards in Crozet west of Charlottesville.

Just behind the barn-style tasting room and brick patio sits the sprawling polo pitch, a field nearly nine times the size of a football field that stretches along the edge of the grapevines.

On any given summer Sunday, if it’s not too hot or not too rainy, visitors can find a polo match at play.

Any other day in the summer, they’ll find Fadil, 12-year-old Clara Baldwin and 17-year-old Dylan Tung helping out their trainer Ali King.

“During the summer these kids are always around. They are such a kind and talented group, and I am going to be said to see Hanan and Dylan leave us in the next few years,” King said.

On the Friday before Sunday’s match, the three prepped their ponies, which many said are the key to success on the field.

“The horses out here today are the Michael Jordans of polo horses,” said Nathaniel White Feather, a veteran horse trainer from Richmond. “They are all thoroughbreds just like racehorses but have shorter legs so they can start and stop and turn on a pivot more easily. I give all the props to the horses. They are 95% of the equation in creating the best polo players.”

All three players were chuffed at the idea of finally facing off against kids close in age. Teams were selected the day of the tournament to ensure fairness.

“The NYTS tournament is really cool because it’s a whole bunch of kids you don’t know, so you have no clue who is going to be on your team until the morning you get there,” Tung said.

Most excited was 12-year-old Baldwin, even though she’d be facing people several years older and several inches taller. 

“I can’t wait to get out there on Sunday. I feel like sometimes it can be a little stressful to go against people older than me, but once you get in the game, that clears away and I want to prove myself,” Baldwin said. “Here at Roseland Polo, we want to make kids better so we’re not like, ‘Oh, go easy on her because she’s younger.’”

Fadil started playing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She is one of the set of new, younger polo players sparking a surge of interest in the centuries-old sport that began in Persia and since become known as the “sport of kings.”

“I got into it three years ago now, and it started during COVID when my summer camp was canceled,” Fadil said. “I’ve been riding my entire life, but I never tried polo, and I tried it, and I was instantly obsessed with it, and so I started coming every day and helping out.”

The first semifinals on Sunday would be a showdown between two stars of the younger set: Fadil on one team and Tung on the other.

The two were given the same advice before the match.

“With youth players especially, I usually tell them to relax and not rush their swing,” Kyle Deal, a trainer, said mid-match on Sunday. “In the kids’ game, everybody gets excited and wants to run. I was telling them to just go slower and to play their positions.”

Fadil and Tung both play the No. 4 position, which means they are the primary defense player.

Fadil’s prowess on the pitch was unmatched Sunday. As she floated on horseback, other riders struggled to keep control of their ponies and at one point one player was even dismounted.

“Hanan has such grace on the pony,” King said. “She is easily one of the best players on the pitch today.”

At the end of the two seven-minute chukkers — that’s polo for period — Fadil’s team, sponsored by Acme Stove and Fireplace Center, was victorious. Fadil led the way, scoring a goal to help lift her team to the win.

In the second semifinal on Sunday, Baldwin would face off against her older brother Liam. In the end, Clara Baldwin’s team lost to the Thalhimer-sponsored team, which was led by leading scorer Kelsey Bray.

Just before the start of the consolation and final matches, fans got the chance to take part in the action themselves. Families were invited onto the field to replace the chunks of grass and dirt churned up by hoof and mallet in a tradition known as divot stomping.

“Kids get to run around on the field between chukkers and games. The event can be as casual and easy-breezy as you want it to be,” King said. “The goal for us is to make sure that everyone just enjoys themselves and has a lovely time.”

Minutes before taking the pitch, Fadil was giddy prepping her ponies in the stables. Even with her white trousers covered in dirt and sweat glinting off her forehead, there was a broad smile spread across her face.

“I can’t wait to get back out on the pitch. I don’t feel nervous really at all; I’m just excited,” Fadil said. “I am confident in myself and my team. We have played great so far, and I expect us to carry that forward into the finals and hopefully we can win it.”

As the umpire threw in the ball to start the final, that smile had faded away. Like a painter poised before a blank canvas, Fadil looked eager to create a masterpiece of athleticism and finesse on the field.

Taking charge of her cherished favorite horse, a brown mare with a black mane, Fadil defended her team’s goal and raced up the field to score a go-ahead goal against the opposition.

Her team did not win easily though. They had to hold off a comeback in the final few minutes, with Fadil making stellar defensive plays. At the final horn, her team won the championship 3-to-1 over Thalhimer.

Fadil, who described herself as her biggest critic, said she was nevertheless proud of her performance.

“I’m very excited right now. I feel like I could have made a different play here and there or positioned myself a little bit differently, but for the most part, I’m super happy with how everything went,” Fadil said post-match. “I am so proud of my team. It was so fun playing with and against my friends.”

In the consolation match, Tung’s team, sponsored by Flow Mercedes-Benz of Charlottesville, handily defeated Baldwin’s Frank Hardy Sotheby’s-sponsored team.

As the award ceremony neared, Fadil’s sparkling smile had reappeared as she shared a warm embrace with Baldwin, who said she looks up to Fadil as a role model.

“I felt like I didn’t play the best today, but it’s something I could learn from, and I still had a lot of fun, which was my goal. I am also so proud of Hanan and how she played. She deserved her all-star award,” Baldwin said post-tournament.

For their performances, Fadil and Tung both received one of seven coveted all-star medals, which means they are in the pool of players who could be chosen to play at the “big dance.” Now they must wait and see if they will be one of 16 players selected to compete at this fall’s polo national youth championship.

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