A-F Pony Farm had anything but an easy time in winning the U.S. Open Women's Polo Championship 6 goal tournament last month at the Houston Polo Club. Aiken's Karen Reese was part of the championship team's roster. A-F Pony Farm would need to go to overtime to defeat San Saba 5-4 in the finals.
But, their route to the finals had its complications, and they found themselves having to contend with the challenge of facing a well mounted BTA team.
The A-F Pony Farm roster was composed of Reese, Tiffany Busch, Abbey Riggs and Dayelle Fargey. BTA's lineup featured Chrys Beal, K.C. Beal, Sheila Lequirica and Lia Salvo.
“I was surprised by how well K.C. is playing,” said Reese. “She's playing well over her handicap. Chrys is always tough, Sheila played great, and Lia was amazing.”
A-F Pony Farm would defeat BTA in a game that featured plenty of offense as 15 goals were scored in the contest, with A-F Pony Farm prevailing 8-7, but the victory would be costly.
Both teams pride themselves on playing defense, so the final score wasn't what the players were expecting.
“I thought the game was going to be relatively close if we stayed organized,” said Reese. “We stayed organized.”
The team's quarterback was Abbey Riggs, and A-F Pony Farm's strategy paid dividends, said Reese.
“I think we did a great job,” said Reese. “We did exactly what Abbey set out for us to do. When we started the game, she had a game plan, and I think we followed it to a tee, and we got the result we wanted.”
However, an untoward event on the game's last play, in the last few seconds of the final chukker, would have resounding consequences.
Riggs would sustain a broken leg, suppressing the celebration, and would leave a number of questions for A-F Pony Farm going into the finals.
“I didn't realize Abbey had been hurt until I got back to the trailer,” said Reese. “I saw that they had pulled her off her horse, and someone had driven her back to the trucks. She called me over, and said Karen, 'I'm not going to be able to play.'”
The injury called for a trip to the hospital, and it was thought the athlete had sustained a hairline fracture, but doctors weren't able to determine whether the leg was broken. An MRI needed to be scheduled, and the polo player would have to wait until Monday.
“Abbey was in such excrutiating pain,” said Reese. “She wasn't able to pick up her leg.”
A-F Pony Farm was now faced with the dilemma of having to find a player on short notice who would be a good fit with their team, and they considered several options, before the decision was made to play with someone who had just proven to be a formidable opponent.
Lia Salvo would join the A-F Pony Farm roster for the finals, with Busch and Riggs mounting the diminutive player. But, now the team faced a new challenge in not having all played together previoulsy, and determining how they should line up. A series of adjustments would be made, shifting players to positions, and in some cases into unfamiliar territory, while making several adaptations without disrupting the overall team chemistry. Fargey, who had played no. 1 all tournament, shifted to no. 4; Salvo would move into the no. 3 position, and Reese whose usual position is 3 or 4, found herself at no. 1, a position she doesn't normally play.
It took sometime, but the players were able to adapt to one another's style of play, and began to mesh, particulary in the the second half.
“I think it was halftime,” said Reese. “I can't speak for the other girls, but I think it was halftime before I could figure out how far she was going to hit the ball. I think the two girls who played closer to Lia were going to pick it up sooner. I came out in the second half with a whole different mentality in how to play with her.”
San Saba, whose roster was composed of Dawn Jones, Caroline Anier, Clarissa Echazaretta and Lesley Ann Masterton Fong-Yee, took a 4-3 lead in the 4th chukker's final minute on a successful penalty conversion, and appeared well on their way to winning the championship. But, the game was far from over.
A-F Pony Farm had several scoring opportunities late in the period, and those included two runs to goal by Reese.
“Once the ball was bouncing, and I missed it right in front of the goal,” said Reese. “My teammate took a swipe at it, the ball continued bouncing, and she missed it. They backed it out of goal, and I had another run in the last 30 seconds. I had a neck shot, and somehow over cut it over the backline.”
San Saba chose to continue playing, rather than hitting the ball against the boards, and ending the game in regulation. A-F Pony Farm intercepted the ball, Reese threaded a pass to Busch, who would then have the primary assist on Salvo's goal sending the game into the extra chukker.
“A lot of luck played a part in this game.” said Reese, whose mares Fresca and America were outstanding. America would play a large role in overtime. “Honestly, in overtime I give the credit to Tiffany Busch. Right now, she's the crown jewel of American players. She's young, she's strong, she's smart, she's extremely well mounted and very focused. She's a powerhouse. I love playing with her, and hate playing against her.”
Reese and Busch have an intuitive relationship out on the field, always seeming to know where one another is going to be.
Busch's ability to keep her equanimity, allowed her to maintain control of the ball while being marked by two players.
“She had one player on her mallet side and a person on her hip,” said Reese. “She had someone trying to hook her, and someone trying to ride her over the ball. She was 60 yards out, but powered through the hooks, had her head down, and I was following her. I saw Lia move into position behind me, and I knew I couldn't help her without fouling because she had a man on each side. I saw Lesley make a move toward goal to block the shot physically with her horse.”
However, that's when Reese's mare America stepped in, and that would make the difference. America, being the bulldozer that she is, moved Masterton Fong-Yee out of position, so she couldn't defend.
“Tiffany took the shot and just smoked it,” said Reese.