By Sharon Robb
WELLINGTON, Fla., October 28, 2018----In a wild finish, Travieso rallied in the second half to win the coveted USPA North American Cup Saturday at Grand Champions Polo Club.
Trailing by five goals (9-4) at halftime, Travieso (Tony Calle, 3, Grant Ganzi, 2, Juan Cruz Merlos, 5, Pite Merlos, 8) staged an incredible comeback for a stunning 14-13 overtime victory over Audi (Wes Finlayson, 4, Brandon Phillips, 4, Pablo Spinacci, 6, Marc Ganzi, 2) in one of the most exciting finishes in USPA North American Cup history.
In front of a good local crowd and worldwide USPA Polo Network audience, Travieso was relentless in the second half, shutting out Audi in the fifth chukker, 4-0.
Travieso outscored Audi 9-4 in the final three chukkers before Grant Ganzi came up with the game-winning penalty-two conversion with 3:41 left in sudden death.
Former 10-goaler Pite Merlos was named Most Valuable Player after the playmaker sparked the comeback and scored four second-half goals.
"It's a great feeling to win like this coming back in extra time," Merlos said. "I'm so sorry for Audi because they were a great challenge."
It was the first major tournament Merlos' 20-year-old son Juan Cruz Merlos won in the U.S. The five-goaler is making his U.S. polo debut at Grand Champions this fall.
"It's a great feeling to play with my son," Merlos said. "It allows me to pass on all the great knowledge I have learned from great players. Now there is a narrow line between how much coach and father I need to be. Right now, I just need to learn to be his teammate only. I am enjoying every single minute. I think I don't want to play with him much longer because he is going up and I am going down."
Said Juan Cruz Merlos, "I am so happy we won and I won with my dad. We were struggling at one stage, then my dad, the head of the team, got things together. He made some moves and changed some positions and we got it. We had our system, got our rhythm back and Grant had the best score of the game."
Five-year-old Bliss, played by Spinacci and owned by Santa Rita Polo Farm, was selected Best Playing Pony.
For Team USPA member Grant Ganzi, it was his fourth USPA North American Cup title at age 20. He also won with Casablanca twice and Flexjet. Ganzi scored a game-high five goals including three key penalty conversions.
"Obviously, I was nervous taking the penalty shot in overtime," Ganzi said. "I'm not a robot, I'm human. I was definitely nervous. There was a lot of energy and heat on the field. After the play I was trying to remain calm and keep focused.
"It's nice to win this one again," Ganzi said. "This one is probably the best win I have had out of all of them. Today was a tough day and it showed our determination to come back. It was good to get this win and it was a fun team to play with."
Ganzi said Merlos' halftime coaching strategy and pep talk helped.
"We were a little down on ourselves," Ganzi said. "Pite got us together and said 'guys, we're disorganized and showing the inexperience we have.' We were leaving men open and they were killing us.
"We needed to show more experience and maturity. We needed to change and get tight on the man and do something drastic to swing the game our way. Tony went to the back, I went to one, Juan Cruz went to two and Pite went to three."
Added Juan Cruz Merlos, "I had faith since the beginning of the game. We were down by so many goals but we are all young and all wanted to win. I thought we could do it."
It was Team USPA's Tony Calle second USPA North American Cup victory in three years and fifth 20-goal tournament title in his young career.
"We were a little disorganized at the beginning," Calle said. "We had to change our game plan after halftime and it worked beautifully. Pite knew exactly what to do. Grant Ganzi played phenomenal today. It was a tough shot in overtime and he made it look easy. When I stayed back Pite and Juan Cruz had the freedom to go up more and were better with the ball."
Audi played a near-perfect first half, jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the opening chukker with goals from Finlayson and Ganzi and two goals on handicap. Audi continued to control the momentum in the next two chukkers to extend its lead to 6-3 after two chukkers and 9-4 at the half.
Travieso clawed its way back into the game in one of the most amazing turnarounds. Merlos scored two goals and Ganzi converted a penalty-three to outscore Audi, 3-2, in the fourth chukker, to trail 11-7. Travieso outscored Audi, 4-0, in the fifth to tie the game at 11-11 on Ganzi's goal off a rebound with 24 seconds left.
The lead changed hands four times in the sixth chukker. Phillips penalty-three conversion regained the lead for Audi at 12-11. Grant Ganzi came up with a clutch penalty-three conversion to tie the game at 12-12. With 1:25 left in regulation, Pite Merlos then lofted a penalty-four conversion to give Travieso a 13-12 lead and what looked to be the game until Spinacci took a pass from Finlayson and scored just before the horn sending the game into overtime.
Both teams had scoring opportunities from the field in overtime before Pite Merlos was fouled on a run to goal and Ganzi came up with his clutch penalty conversion.
"After our team talk at halftime, we put Tony Calle at back so that freed me a little more to go forward," Merlos said. "In the first half I was too deep at back so we didn't have too many shots to goal."
In addition to Ganzi's five goals, Juan Cruz Merlos scored four goals and Calle added one.
For Audi, Wes Finlayson, also a Team USPA member, scored a team-high four goals and was one of the most dominant players on the field. Spinacci had three goals and Phillips and Ganzi each had two goals.
In The Just For The Love Of It subsidiary game, Gracida Wines (Carlitos Gracida, 4, Whistle Uys, 4, Mariano Gracida, 4, Julio Gracida, 4) defeated Flexjet (Melissa Ganzi, 0, Pablo Dorignac, 5, Pablo Spinacci, 6, Juan Bollini, 5), 11-9.
Gracida Wines got balanced scoring from its offense. Julio Gracida scored a team-high four goals, Carlitos Gracida had three goals and Uys and Mariano Gracida each had two goals.
Flexjet took a 6-5 lead to open the fourth chukker on Dorignac's goal. Julio Gracida tied the score, 6-6, at the 3:30 mark and Mariano Gracida scored off a rebound shot to take the lead, 7-6. Gracida Wines never trailed after that.
For Flexjet, Spinacci, the Ironman of the day playing 12 chukkers, had a game-high five goals and finished with eight goals in two games. Melissa Ganzi had two goals. Dorignac and Bollini each had one goal.
The USPA North American Cup is the club's first of two 20-goal tournaments of the fall season.
The USPA North American Cup has a rich tradition in history dating back to 1974. The tournament has been a mainstay in American and Canadian polo for decades at the 16 and 20-goal level.
The inaugural winner was Tulsa with Hall of Famers John T. Oxley and Billy Linfoot, Corky Linfoot and Jim MacGinley. During the late 1990s and early 2000s Calgary Polo Club hosted the tournament. The tournament has been held at Grand Champions since 2011.
During Saturday's game fans were treated to a full array of free food and refreshments including chicken milanese sandwiches, empanadas, pastries and elaborate custom-designed Halloween witch cake and cup cakes by Sugar Rush-Sweet Shop in Wellington.
Grand Champions is one of the few USPA-sanctioned clubs that offers fall polo. The fall season is a good tuneup for the winter season for players and green horses. The winter season will feature the debut of the highly-anticipated 26-goal World Polo League at Grand Champions and Valiente Polo Farm featuring 10-goalers Adolfo Cambiaso, Pablo MacDonough, Pelon Sterling and Juan Martin Nero.
Grand Champions is one of the nation's busiest and most innovative polo clubs, hosting both medium and high goal polo in the fall. Among season highlights are the Nov. 3-17 USPA National 20-Goal Championship; Nov. 14 Triple Crown of Polo Tournament and Romero Britto Celebration; and Nov. 24 doubleheader featuring the Legends of Polo Carlos Gracida Memorial and International Cup.
This year's Nov. 24 International Cup will feature defending champion Team USA against Azerbaijan. This year the U.S. team will put its six-year winning streak on the line against Azerbaijan, known as the Land of Fire and Ice, and one of the most improved polo teams in the world. Recently, Azerbaijan finished runner-up to Italy in the FIP European Championship.
Last year Team USA ( Grant Ganzi, Carlitos Gracida, Julio Arellano, Mike Azzaro) defeated Brazil, 9-7, to capture the sixth annual International Cup event. Arellano was named Most Valuable Player for the third consecutive year. Since 2012, Team USA has defeated England, Chile, Mexico, South Africa and Uruguay in International Cup history.
The well-organized fall tournaments attract players from all over the United States and world including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, England, France, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria and South Africa.
Grand Champions had its finest fall season in club history last year. Grand Champions was the only club in the nation to stage two USPA-sanctioned 20-goal fall tournaments and again is hosting two 20-goal tournament this season.
The Grand Champions Fall Invitational League is geared toward improving a player's polo skills at every level. Roster lineups change from tournament to tournament with evenly-matched teams featuring pro and amateur players.
Club owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi, both accomplished players, take pride in teaching and sharing the exciting sport of polo with anyone interested in learning. The husband and wife team are coming off a successful summer season at their Aspen Valley Polo Club which concluded over Labor Day Weekend.
The fall league features: stick-and-ball sessions during the week; two medium tournament games every weekend; ambulance and USPA umpires for all tournament games; world-class polo fields; club-sponsored social events every weekend for all players; and top-of-the-line trophies for all teams every weekend.
Wellington-based ChukkerTV will live stream the entire fall season. ChukkerTV's state-of-the art technology also features team challenges and instant replay which made their debut at Grand Champions in January, 2014.
Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm hosts polo tournaments ranging from six to 26-goal during the winter season in addition to special events at its well-manicured fields during the fall, winter and spring seasons.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm cater to men, women and youth polo players at all levels. Its' expert staff can customize a complete playing experience including horses, pros and certified umpires in addition to lessons and practice sessions as part of its' Polo On Demand program at the turnkey facility.
The Polo School, a 501c3 organization and stand-alone USPA club, is also thriving at Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm. It is dedicated to teaching polo to all ages, particularly grass roots youth. Its mission is to provide individuals opportunities in polo at every economic and ability level. Scholarships are available. The Polo School operates in Wellington January through June and September through November.