Harvard Polo wins Pre-Regional Tournament.
“Hey, I got a couple tables over there,” Aemilia Phillips ’16 said as I walked into the Starbucks. She was waiting on line to order. I looked over and she had secured three tables in the Garage Starbucks: the first miracle of this story. Soon, ten of the men and women’s varsity members of the Harvard Polo Team were huddled around the table.
“Okay,” Aemelia, our women’s captain began, “the horses are coming back from South Carolina this week. They are rested, so they are happy, but out of shape.” That the horses would be returning from their time off so early was the second miracle. The warm weather this year would allow us to have a spring season. “We just learned from the USPA that it is required for us to bring horses to the pre-regional tournament if we want to compete. Of course, it’s an advantage to have them anyway because we know our horses. But this also means that we have only five weeks to get them in shape.” “Well it sounds like we either make it happen or we don’t compete,” someone replies. “But I think we all want to compete, so let’s make it happen.” For the next few weeks groups made the 45-minute trek to the Harvard Polo and Equestrian Center at Hamilton Farm twice per day to walk and trot in endless circles.
Flash forward to a brisk, sunny, early morning on Saturday, February 27 as the Harvard Polo Van (affectionately referred to as The Silver Stallion) rattled down I-84 toward New Haven. Inside, the six varsity women were sleeping, sipping terribly mis-prepared coffee from the Framingham rest stop, and occasionally reminding each other of strategies and coaching points. Ahead we could see the truck that carried the equine half of our team: Circa, Pele, Capocha, Tomasa, Yahtzee, and Pulcera. What we could not see was the series of obstacles that we would face over the course of the next two days.
The first challenge appeared before we even arrived. As we got closer and closer to the Yale Polo and Equestrian Center, the site of the United States Polo Association Intercollegiate Women’s Northeastern Preliminary Tournament, we began to consult our digital maps. In the tradition of technology’s failed simplification of our lives, Apple Maps decided to take us on the shortest route. This happened to follow a long, winding, and steep road–not exactly conducive to an old van or to a truck pulling six horses and equipment. The truck was crawling up the narrow hill and through my nervous laughter I eyed the cars zipping down in the opposite direction. The back window of the Silver Stallion framed the trailer struggling up the back road of Connecticut and our frustrated coach attempting to follow our lead.
We arrived at the barn safely and just in time for the all-team meeting. Coach Crocker Snow was slightly frustrated but his old and plodding Spaniel, Sky, seemed unconcerned. Miracle three: the perseverance of our vehicles. At Harvard, polo is a club sport, so it is not governed by the NCAA. However, the United States Polo Association governs polo in the United States and is building an Interscholastic (pre-college) and an Intercollegiate Program. During the fall we compete against other colleges every weekend and based on our record are seeded for the regional tournaments in the Northeast. Our team was the top seed going into the Preliminary tournament against Guelph University (Canada), Yale, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The winner of this tournament would move on to the regional tournament at Cornell to compete against UConn, Skidmore, and others.
As we gathered to gear up and have a pre-game huddle in our makeshift locker room (it was filled with leather and horse feed), the second challenge arrived. “I have no boots.” These words, from the mouth of one of our three starters, sparked panic. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s okay, we will find boots,” I added. After some very frantic boot juggling, two people on the team were wearing unfamiliar boots that fit … well enough.
“Let’s focus. We are going to win this tournament,” Aemilia said. We stood in a circle in the arena, ready to go. “We have not won this tournament for five years and this is the best team we’ve had in a long time. Let’s make it happen. I want to go to regionals.”
We gained a strong lead in the first two chukkers of our game against Guelph. Parents came to lend support, and saw us feeling good and playing well. We controlled the rhythm of the game and were in sync. In the third chukker, one of our starting players, Robiny Jamerson ‘17, headed toward our goal to defend. She was on her own and I was blocking an opponent. As I watched, her horse stopped short and she lost her balance to the front right. She landed, the whistle blew, and I watched for her to pop back up. She sat on the ground, and when she did not rise after a few seconds Aemilia jumped off of her horse and threw me the reins. “Everyone needs to keep walking their horses!” Yelled the USPA representative. EMS had come onto the field with our coach and Robiny’s parents. The viewers clapped when she stood up, but when they put her arm in a makeshift sling a few minutes later, it was clear that challenge number three would be our biggest and most concerning one yet: one of our starting players was injured, which meant she would be out of the finals against UMass the next day.
It was quiet in our claimed locker room as everyone prepared for the final game the next day. “Caroline, get amped, focus on the moment and what’s going to happen next. Charlotte, just block, block, block,” Aemilia advised our new starting team. They headed into the arena and got on their horses, beginning to warm up. Robiny arrived in a real sling. “How’s it going?” “I think okay, we can do this. How’s the arm?” I responded. “Bad sprain, no fracture.” We went to the box and waited for the game to start. The teams lined up and the ref bowled in the ball. The game had started. I looked at Eliza Bird ‘19, our other teammate, and said, “We can win this game.” At this point, I was willing our victory into existence.
The first chukker ended and we were down by three, but still playing well. Next to me, Robiny’s breathing was louder than the pounding of horse hooves. “Please don’t hyperventilate,” I told her. “Wall, win the wall!” She screamed into the arena — advising the girls to protect the ball along the wall. By halftime we had tied the game 9-9. “We can win this tournament, guys. It’s tied. We are really close,” Aemilia said. Crocker came by with advice and encouragement. As the team waited for their horses, I reminded them to relax. “Take a deep breath, don’t overthink, play smart.”
Then UMass scored three goals in the first 30 seconds of the third chukker. 12-9 UMass. We held them off for the rest of the chukker. Just after this devastating blow I turned around to find Robiny in full gear with her elbow wrapped in an Ace bandage. “What are you doing?” I asked her. “It’s wrapped really tight. I have to go in.” After some discussion among coaches and a test of the arm, Robiny subbed in for the last chukker. My whole body was shaking and I had my nose pressed to the netting around the box. The game was changing. Before long we were tied. Excitement, anticipation, pride all rose inside me. Aemilia scored two 2-pointers. In the end the score was 17-12. Harvard. This was not a miracle.
We ran into the arena and hugged each other and tried really hard not to cry. It felt like so much had gone into this win. The JVs who had woken up at 6:30am for morning trips to the barn, getting riders on twice a day, the will of our teammates, the support of our parents and friends; everyone stepped up to make it happen. The ponies played for us and we played for each other through injuries, through family emergencies, and through a thesis that was due the next day. It was a moment of realizing how many people wanted this: all of the teammates who did not play in the tournament who gave up their time to help, our coaches, and the horses. It takes a skilled village to play this sport.
“Would anyone be up for a six-minute detour to Billy’s Ice Cream?” I asked consulting my Apple maps.” “Yes!” was the unanimous answer. As we ate our Mississippi Mud Pie and Mint Chip ice cream we laughed and recounted the events of the previous 48 hours. “We’re going to Cornell!” I smiled, “Let’s do it again.”
Kelsey O’Connor ‘18 ([email protected]) is accepting recommendations for ice cream places to frequent for all occasions.