WELLINGTON, Fl., March 1, 2018---In an emotionally-charged final, San Saba captured the Sunset “Sunny” Hale Memorial Tournament Wednesday at Santa Rita Polo Farm.
By Sharon Robb
The Grand Champions Polo Club monthly women’s league final featured San Saba, Cedar Croft and Stage Hill in a seven-chukker round robin in honor of Hale, the all-time greatest women's polo player.
The part-time Wellington resident died February 26, 2017 in Norman, Okla. due to complications from cancer. She was 48.
Fourteen players competed in honor of one of the sport’s pioneers and first woman in polo history to win the 26-goal U.S. Open in an era when the sport was male-dominated. Hale was recently inducted posthumously into the Polo Hall of Fame.
The final lived up to expectations with three talented teams. San Saba featured Scarlett Davenport, Laura Willson, Clarissa Echezeretta, Malia Bryan and Josephine Hermans; Stage Hill had Haley Heatley, Molly Houtton, Slaney O'Hanlon and Alyson Poor; and Cedar Croft had Riley, Malicia Von Falkenhausen, Kylie Sheehan, Alina Carter and Nicole Watson.
"It was fantastic," said women's league creator Alina Carta. "The girls played great. We are having so much fun. It's everything we wanted to accomplish when I started this league.
"Out of this league girls get asked to play in tournaments, they get seen, they get confident and it gives them an opportunity to meet everybody," Carta said. "It was a great day and great way to remember Sunny Hale.
For San Saba, Malia Bryan scored a game-high four goals. Laura Willson added three goals. It was San Saba's second tournament victory in four days.
Kylie Sheehan, 26, was selected the Sande Gane Most Valuable Player. Sheehan was an all-star polo player at Garrison Forest School in Maryland and co-captain of its 2009 national championship team. She was a starter on the University of Virginia's women's polo team, where she was a three-time captain and 2012 intercollegiate national champion. She was also the 2009 Polo Training Foundation Interscholastic Player of the Year.
Sheehan was making her 2018 debut in the women's league. Last year she played all three months.
"It's great to be back, I really enjoyed it," Sheehan said. "I love women's polo because you feel like you really have something to contribute to the team. Teamwork is especially important in women's polo. It's really cool to see how much the girls are improving since the beginning of the season."
Sheehan, who helps run Flying Cow Polo in Wellington, has been playing polo for eleven years. No one in her family plays polo.
"I got lucky enough where I lived down the road from Garrison Forest which is a girls school that has polo," Sheehan said. "They have a really successful interscholastic program where I learned to play in the arena there and played in college. I enjoyed it."
Spot, a 14-year-old Argentine mare owned and ridden by Alina Carta, was named Masai of Palm Beach Best Playing Pony.
Clarissa Echezarreta, a longtime player and one of polo's pioneers, is impressed by the quality of today's women's polo players. Echezarreta was MVP in the Feb. 25 Sunny Hale Women's Tournament presented by Southern Eagle at BG Vero Beach Polo.
"It's really nice to have these kind of opportunities and to be able to practice and play consistently," Echezarreta said. "It means a lot. It's improved my game. It's gotten me in shape and gotten my horses playing well. It's everything. Everyone has improved tremendously from playing in the tournaments which is good."
Every player on the three polo teams was touched by Hale’s influence in the sport. Most players were friends of Hale, who was rated at five goals among men, the highest of any woman player in the sport’s history. Others had been motivated watching Hale and started playing polo.
"Like everybody, Sunny was such a role model and inspiration for me," Sheehan said. "I remember my first tournament ever was in Malaysia and I played against Sunny Hale. It was such an honor to play against her and also very humbling. To get to play against such an amazing player gave me goals to work towards and really inspired me. I do think about her all the time and feel so lucky that she has been such a pioneer in the sport for women."
Many of the players have competed in qualifiers for the Women’s Championship Tournament (WCT), the largest women’s league in the world which Hale founded to help open the door and break down barriers for girls and women. The WCT final will be hosted by Melissa and Marc Ganzi April 3-8 at Grand Champions Polo Club.
The monthly polo league, which concludes in March at Santa Rita, was created by Carta, one of the highest ranked women in the U.S. in the 1980s. Carta played with and against Hale in the U.S. and internationally including Singapore. Carta pitched the women's league idea to Melissa Ganzi, Florida Circuit Governor and Grand Champions Polo Club president who loved it.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique private 100-acre polo facility in Wellington with 120 stalls in five self-contained barns, exercise track, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation and stick-and-ball fields.
During fall, winter and spring seasons, Grand Champions Polo Club, the nation's largest club with 11 well-manicured fields, hosts polo tournaments ranging from six to 26-goal in addition to special events.
The club features monthly 6, 8 and 12-goal tournaments and women's weekly league play during the winter season in addition to two 16-20 tournaments, $50,000 National 12 Goal, $100,000 World Cup winner-take-all 0-40-goal tournament, WCT Tournament and USPA National President's Cup.
During the 2017 winter season Grand Champions attracted a record 72 teams and another 18 teams during the spring season.
Grand Champions caters 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, the only polo club in the U.S. to offer the unique program.
The Club Hotline is 561-644-5050. It will be updated every day at 8 a.m. for both players and fans