By Sharon Robb
WELLINGTON, Fl., March 7, 2018---Team USPA is an early favorite after opening the $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament Monday with a 12-5 victory over Grand Champions at Santa Rita Polo Farm.
Playing together for the first time, Team USPA (Felipe Viana, 5, Tommy Alberdi, 4, Nick Johnson, 3, Julia Smith, 0) and Grand Champions (Grant Ganzi, 2, Juancito Bollini, 4, Matt Coppola, 4, Bauti Panelo, 2) were tied 4-4 early in the fourth chukker before Team USPA scored eight unanswered points.
Alberdi scored a game-high six goals including two penalty conversions. Viana added three, Johnson had two and Smith added one.
Team USPA was unable to practice before the tournament. Johnson, based at The Villages, was playing in Sarasota, and Smith was working with Goose Creek.
"This is a great team, I'm very happy with the win," said 23-year-old Alberdi who is playing the 12-goal season at Grand Champions Polo Club with Newport. "This helps our confidence going into the next game."
The teams played evenly in the opening half with the lead changing hands six times before Team USPA took a 4-3 halftime lead on Johnson's goal with 28 seconds left.
"We had the first three chukkers, honestly, just to get to know each other on the field from not playing with each other ever," said Alberdi. "Then we just started jelling. We switched the knock-ins and kept doing what we were doing.
"We were organized and we came into halftime talking about what we were doing wrong," Alberdi said. "We were getting a little caught up with their knock-ins, letting them bring the ball a little too far into the field without pressure. We didn't let them have control of the ball and that's when we started picking up on their mistakes."
Viana, the team captain, regrouped his teammates during halftime.
"It was just a matter of time for us to start playing better together," Viana said. "The other team is a super team. The first three chukkers was our practice to see what we did well together and what we didn't. Slowly, we started merging together and doing plays more naturally instead of forcing them.
"I have no idea...we beat a great team that is super mounted," Viana said. "By the time I looked at the scoreboard we were up by a bunch of goals. It just felt like our team was clicking and our team chemistry got stronger. We played simple and every single one of us did their job."
Viana said the tournament is wide open and there is no clear cut favorite to win.
"It doesn't get any better when you start a little shaky and all of a sudden it clicks so quick and so solid, it's nice," said 28-year-old Viana. "We still have to work on getting better because there are really strong teams in this tournament. We have to go baby steps and stay concentrated and focus on who we have to play next."
Johnson, 27, who grew up in England and based at The Villages, was coming off a tournament in Sarasota. He has been playing professionally since age 18.
"We had quite a few knock-ins, so it wasn't just us, I think they missed a few," Johnson said. "Felipe is a good captain and gave us simple jobs to do. No one tried to play individually. He wanted us to play four-man polo and that's what we did.
"This was a good confidence-boost but we have to go in with the mentality that it was one game," Johnson said. "I thought we were the underdogs today. We were a put together team last Monday. They come from a hell of an organization with great horses."
Smith, rated five goals in the USPA women's rankings, is the only woman competing in the tournament. Smith has been a member of Team USPA since 2004 and graduated from University of Virginia where she was one of the nation's top collegiate players. Women players account for nearly 40 percent of USPA membership, mainly because of legendary Hall of Famer Sunny Hale paving the way.
"I'm really happy with the win and to be playing, it's such an honor to be on the team with these boys and I am learning so much," said 23-year-old Smith. "I think we really started clicking and jelling as a team in the second half. This definitely helps my confidence going into the next game. The more we play together, the better we will get."
Coppola scored all four of Grand Champions goals including two penalty shots.
Tournament action resumes Thursday when GSA begins its title defense against Deeridge at Grand Champions Field 4 at 4 p.m. GSA returns Henry Porter, Santino Magrini and Torito Ruiz. Viana's younger brother, Nachi, replaces Juan Martin Zubia who is not competing.
The fifth annual eight-team, winner-take-all, single-elimination tournament is the only tournament to offer major prize money at the 12-goal level.
GSA returns as defending champion. Three of the four players return to defend their title. They are Henry Porter, Santino Magrini and Torito Ruiz. MVP Juan Martin Zubia, now in college, is not returning this year.
GSA defeated Casablanca (Matias Gonzalez, Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini, Jesse Bray), 13-6 and became the youngest team in tournament history to win. Zubia scored a game-high six goals, Ruiz had five and Magrini scored two.
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.