After last year’s success playing both the USPA Women’s Arena Open and Handicap over the same weekend, Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, attracted many top women players to return and compete for their second chance at the newly minted national USPA titles. Featuring two 20-goal open teams and four handicap teams playing at the 12- to 16-goal level, the tournament was hosted Friday, October 5, through Sunday, October 7. High school sophomore Sophie Grant, rated at 5-goals and a member of both winning teams, scored an impressive 16 goals over three days of tournament competition.
Marlan Farm Snatch the Open from Defending Champions Ace Sportswear
Winning last year’s inaugural USPA Women’s Arena Open with a commanding 13-5 margin, Ace Sportswear returned to face fellow 20-goal contenders Marlan Farm in the final Saturday, October 6. Pitting two Team USPA members and national intercollegiate champions against each other, spectators anticipated a fierce four chukkers of play. Marlan Farm was prepared for the challenge, setting a precedent in the first chukker then building their momentum throughout to capture the trophy 16-6.
Riding her favorite horse, Paz, and fresh off her Women’s Arena Handicap Semifinal win the previous day with Drumcliffe, Maddie Grant started off a fast opening chukker with the first goal from the field. Marlan Farm began to find an early rhythm however, and Marissa Wells* added three goals to the tally to end the first. “I thought we did a great job of stretching out on the field,” Marissa Wells said. “Sophie would take great backshots opening up the game and forcing Ace Sportswear to come to us rather than us being bunched up and going around in circles.” As play intensified in the second, both teams exhibited strong defensive strategy, sticking to the man and not giving up an inch. Missing an important open goal Penalty 2, Ace Sportswear’s attempts at scoring were denied at every turn, allowing all three Marlan Farm players to pick up a goal each to end the chukker dominating the scoreboard 7-1.
Beginning to win the majority of the bowl-ins, Marlan Farm’s offensive drives and cohesive team play proved difficult to subdue in the second half. Setting each other up well to finish off plays, Marissa Wells and Sophie Grant produced three consecutive goals in the third. “I’ve always played with my mom Kelly and we make a great pair because she is great on defense and I’m great on offense,” Marissa Wells shared. “I’ve never played with Sophie before, but I loved playing with her and hope to do it again other than play against her!” Breaking Ace Sportswear’s silence, Maddie Grant seized a pivotal opportunity to steal the ball and made back-to-back goals to keep her team in the game. Relentless in their attack, Marlan Farm retaliated again with three goals, Marissa Wells making the only two-point shot of the game. Facing an intimidating 10-goal deficit at the beginning of the final chukker, Ace Sportswear continued to fight, Maddie Grant spearheading the charge. The fourth showcased a renewed Ace Sportswear strategy as they traded goals three times with Drumcliffe. Although matching each other goal for goal, the gap proved too much to overcome and Marlan Farm earned the 2018 title 16-6.
Scoring six of Marlan Farm’s 16 goals, Sophie Grant was named Most Valuable Player. “Marissa’s passes were amazing,” Sophie Grant shared. “She put them right in front of the goal so I was just able to pop them in.” Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to her third chukker horse Bombita, a grey Argentine mare Grant purchased from Liv Stringer-Berube three years ago.
Having the opportunity to play with her coach, the experience was special for Sophie Grant. “Kelly has been my only coach my whole life and I’ve learned everything from her from riding to the basics so it’s really amazing to play on a team with her and win.” Echoing her sentiments, Kelly Wells was grateful for the opportunity to play with two young women so close to her. “It means a great deal to me so I’m very happy and blessed to be able to do this.”
Grant Sisters Prevail to Claim Second Consecutive USPA Women’s Arena Handicap Title
Displaying excellent defense during Friday’s first handicap semifinal, University of Virginia (UVA) capitalized on their home arena and horse advantage to claim the first spot 14-9 over Texas A&M. In a similar fashion, Drumcliffe defeated their opponent Guardian Horse Bedding by five goals 17-12, setting the stage for a competitive rematch of the 2017 handicap final on Sunday, October 7.
Uniting the powerful and skilled trio of Maddie, Sophie and Abbie Grant, Drumcliffe was poised for a repeat win, challenging UVA for the second year in a row. “This is a great opportunity to play with my sisters again,” Abbie said. “Since Maddie went off to school, it’s just Sophie and I at home now, so to have all three of us play together again is a really great experience.” Receiving three goals on handicap from the onset of the game, UVA quickly lost their advantage in the wake of Drumcliffe’s strong teamwork and offensive prowess. Dominating the game in the second and third chukkers, Drumcliffe was rewarded with another decisive win 17-9.
Anticipating Drumcliffe’s fast style of polo from the opening chukker, UVA decided on a strong offensive strategy in hopes of shutting their opponents down early. Each side scoring a goal apiece, UVA maintained their lead only briefly before Drumcliffe completely took control of the game. “We weren’t winning the line up, so that was making it a lot harder to score in the first,” Maddie said. “Then we switched our positions with Sophie lining up at one and that change helped.” As play opened up, Drumcliffe executed their aggressive plays seamlessly to put six consecutive goals on the board in the second. Laser-focused and prepared to take advantage of any mistake, Maddie Grant grabbed the ball from the bowl-in repeatedly and had several runs immediately to goal. Struggling to recover from the swift attack, UVA was only able to add a single goal to their tally, Sadie Bryant winning a bowl-in and running straight into the red zone. After a strenuous chukker, Drumcliffe overtook the lead 8-5.
Coming back from halftime the Grant sisters continued their offensive roll, confidently hitting a series of impressive shots with quick succession and accuracy. In a strategically developed play, Sophie Grant hit a beautiful nearside backshot directly to Maddie Grant who broke for the pass to claim her first two-pointer. Working together as a tight unit, the trio took turns defending and shooting, accumulating another seven goals to Bryant’s one in a matter of minutes. More than doubling up UVA, Drumcliffe headed into the fourth with a sizable lead 15-6. Falling behind fast and running out of time UVA played their hardest in the fourth, winning the chukker by one goal. Determined to score, Bryant pushed past defender Sophie Grant to score first and followed it up with a smart play utilizing the wall. The push came too late however and Drumcliffe was able to defend their title 17-9.
Responsible for nine of Drumcliffe’s 17 goals, Maddie Grant was named Most Valuable Player. Her seven-year-old chestnut mare, Sydney, which Maddie played in the fourth chukker was awarded Best Playing Pony honors. Although the pair have been partners for four years, Maddie was unsure if the horse would be a good fit at first. “She has the biggest personality in the barn,” Maddie Grant said with a laugh. “She eats everything; she even ate Sophie’s phone once! And she loves to be pet and be fed treats.”
Individually and collectively the Grant sisters are a sensational example of the strong rising talent in women’s polo. Inspiring not only for their incredible skill level at a young age, these women are a promising symbol of the future of polo and role models to young girls everywhere. “You see a lot of brothers playing together because the big polo families are all men,” Abbie Grant commented. “We are a team of all women, three sisters, who can play together, perform well together and accomplish goals together and that is really powerful for little girls to see.”
*Marissa Wells and Julia Smith are members of Team USPA. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.