Ride horse, hit ball with stick,” yup, that’s polo in a nutshell, as Nick Nelms, a senior Cal Poly Polo team player sums it up for us. The Cal Poly Polo Team saw the 2019-2020 season out by hosting the USPA Intercollegiate Western Regional Championship Polo Tournament March 6-8. 2020. Winners of Regionals go on to compete in the Nationals – a place very familiar to the Cal Poly Polo team.
The Venue: Central Coast Polo Club
Local venue, Central Coast Polo Club, kicked off the weekend with the first two legs of women’s teams qualifying through elimination rounds which started on Friday March 6, 2020. The top-two ranked women’s teams, Cal Poly and Pt. Loma, were given a bye for the first round of play. Saturday March 7, 2020 began the semi-final rounds. Cal Poly defeated Oregon State for a berth in the women’s final while Pt. Loma rose above Stanford to clinch their spot in the finals.
A Change in Venues
The Cal Poly men’s team faced off in the final against Oregon State on Sunday March, 8, 2020. The finals were met with great anticipation which was somewhat dampened by the overnight rain fall. This sent the hosts, the Cal Poly Team, scrambling to relocate the finals to the covered arena of the Oppenheimer Equestrian Center on campus. Thirty-two horses plus four teams of equipment, players and spectators all had to be moved to the new location. The process worked seamlessly and only delayed the start by one hour.
Men’s Final Match
The men’s team got the final matches rolling with their match against a tough opponent, Oregon State. Both teams battled back and forth for four, six and a half minute chukkers (quarters) with riders bringing in fresh ponies for each chukker. In the end Oregon State emerged the winner with a score of 8-4. This result gave them the championship and a berth at the National Intercollegiate Championships.
Women’s Final Match
Cal Poly women faced Pt. Loma in the Championship match. Here too the ladies swung their mallets mightily and held the Pt. Loma team to a score of 4-1 after the first chukker. The intensity of the match accelerated through the end where Cal Poly was shut out in the second chukker 4-7. Cal Poly put on the heat and raised the score in the third chukker to 7-7. Pt. Loma was on their own string of horses for the fourth chukker which proved to be their ticket to the Championship win with a score of 11-7 in favor of Pt. Loma.
Even though disappointed, the Cal Poly team was all smiles at the end of the tournament. They provided a fabulous venue, provided wonderful horses plus the necessary extra gear and equipment the other teams can’t haul along with them. Megan Judge, Cal Poly’s coach says, “The tournament showcased great players, great sportsmanship, great friendships, great coaches, great umpires and fabulous tournament managers.”
Cal Poly Player Reactions
President of the Cal Poly Polo Team, Sydney Weise, a Sophomore from Mequon, WI, says, “Although it was a bit disappointing to lose our home-field advantage, we were extremely grateful to be able to use the covered arena and that Cal Poly was so flexible with us bringing over 25 horses at the last minute. Overall, I am proud of my team and I think we played to the best of our ability. I am looking forward to improving together in the next year.”
Senior, Nick Helms from Morro Bay, CA enjoyed not having to travel to the Regionals and knowing the horses used for the event. He related his thoughts regarding the results, “Of course, I was disappointed to not make it to Nationals, everyone plays to win. Although at the end of the day the reason why I joined this sport was to become better at horseback riding, and I made steps towards that goal, all while catching some Polo vibes along the way.” Nick started his journey with Polo having simply ridden a few horses on guided trail rides. “I didn’t even know how to tack up a horse!” he readily admitted. Now he has experience doing that and so much more.
Cal Poly’s Men’s Team Captain, Brandon Carreon from Long Beach CA shared his view of his team’s final placing, “Unfortunately, we did not advance to the national tournament; the years prior we did. However, I am extremely proud of both our men’s and women’s team for all of the time and dedication that we all poured into making it as far as we did. It is no easy feat maintaining the health and well-being of so many horses while developing playing skills, all while keeping our grades up as well.”
Both Sydney and Brandon received the All-Star and Horsemanship awards for both the women’s and men’s leagues respectively.
Maintaining the Polo Horse String
Brandon is right. It is quite a feat for these students to maintain a string of Polo Ponies. He appreciates the exposure to so many horses. Each encounter provides him practical experience he can take into his veterinary career.
The students are all involved in the conditioning and maintenance of the entire string of Polo Ponies provided by Central Coast Polo Club. Most students who play polo through the Intercollegiate tournaments do not have their own horses.
Prepping the horses for the tournament fell to the students. Brandon tell us what that entailed, “The main goal of preparation was to keep the horses fit and healthy for the tournament. We took sets of four or five horses each where we rode one and ponied or lead the others alongside. This ensured that every horse got exercise on that day. Aside from the horses, I made sure to go to the gym to keep myself fit enough to play four straight chukkers as well.”
Favorites in the String
Although each student works with all the horses the players do have their favorite ponies to ride. Sydney tells us about her favorite Polo ponies, “I have two favorite horses – Coffee and Estrellita. Coincidentally, they are also best friends and an inseparable pair.
Coffee is a large bay gelding. He has more personality than I’ve ever seen in a horse which make him so fun to work with. On the ground, he’ll pick up brushes, nibble on your shirt, and follow you around like a puppy. Being such a large horse, Coffee will never lose a ride-off and always gives everything he’s got. Estrellita is a medium- sized chestnut mare and a machine in the arena. She has a very light mouth and will stop and turn a dime. She is very quick and reads plays well, sometimes better than I do. Both horses are unquestionably smart and I am incredibly grateful to be able to ride them.”
Brandon appreciates the experience gained from all the different horses and acknowledges that they truly don’t have time to focus on one or two, but he readily admits, “I do have a couple favorite horses to ride. One of them is named Ronin. He is a solid dark bay gelding. His responsiveness and athleticism make him a favorite of a lot of our players.”
Nick simply states, “My go-to horse is Jane. She’s easy to ride and hit off of.”
How Does the Sharing of the Polo Ponies Work at Collegiate Polo Tournaments?
Since most teams may be able to bring only one string of horses to away tournaments, sharing of the hosts venue’s horses is all part of the experience
College Polo runs “split strings” at their tournaments. Sydney tell us how this works, “Each team provides a string of 7 horses, 6 playing ponies and one spare. The strings are played in alternating periods, called chukkers, each horse playing two chukkers. During the course of a game, each player will ride 4 of the 12 playing ponies, 2 of our own and 2 of the other teams.”
Playing Polo Provides Life Lessons
Each student participating in this year’s season is truly thankful for the opportunity. Sydney shares her take home lessons from her time with the team thus far, “During my freshman year I was tack manager and had a responsibility to take care of our shared equipment including wraps, saddles, bridles, etc. This year, I became Cal Poly Polo President and captain of the women’s team. This was a much greater responsibility and commitment. On a monthly basis I work with the USPA, schedule meetings, practices and matches, and organize events. Both of these jobs have helped me grow as a leader and teammate. Like all team sports, polo requires great teamwork and cooperation so it is essential to have good communication skills.”
Brandon relates his experience as, “I cannot describe how much the team has developed me as a person. Since I am pursuing a veterinary career, the numerous horses have enabled extensive opportunities for practical skill development. Also, coming from more of an introverted lifestyle, the team has allowed me to develop beneficial communicating skills for any soon-to-be graduate in the real world.”
There are so many aspects of growth from participating in Polo and Nick takes a different angle, “This experience has given me much insight into the horse person realm, coming from an ocean heavy background this sport also taught me a lot about horsemanship and how much background work is needed for Polo to function. It definitely tested my determination and motivational skills as well.”
What Does the Future Hold for the Cal Poly Polo Team?
Central Coast Polo will continue to offer instruction and provide coaching for the team. Coach, Megan Judge, and manager of Central Coast Polo is extremely grateful for all the donors, students and alumni who help train and exercise the Off-Track Thoroughbreds used in the program. Central Cost Polo Club is a 501.c3 organization and appreciates the generosity of donors to keep the club running. The students do pay a yearly membership fee which helps cover uniform, travel and equipment costs but the bulk of the output falls to the Central Coast Polo Club.
The JV Team is a Good Place to Start
Most Polo players probably have some horse background or experience, yet there are players who go from “Polo looks like fun to playing in the Nationals”. Central Coast Polo Club is your local go-to place to get into Polo. College students can get involved starting on the JV team. Syndey tells us how it works, “We have a JV team of about 10 players and that is the easiest way to start. Unfortunately, the Open House Showcase in April was cancelled due to the coronavirus but we are hoping to recruit others to participate at the Fall Showcase during WOW. Year-round we have JV practices in which new players are encouraged to become comfortable with the horses and sport itself. We are always looking for new players with or without polo experience!”
A Variety of Prior Horse Experience
Each student comes to the Polo team with a wide variety of horse and even Polo experience in their backgrounds. Some really come with none and some have a childhood filled with riding.
Sydney is one of those with a lot of riding and Polo experience in her background. “I started riding when I was 8 years old, I did trail rides before moving into jumping. Two years later, I played Polo for the first time and fell in love with the sport. At 12 years old, I joined the middle school team at Hillside Farm based out of Richfield, WI. From there, I played two-years in the middle school league and four-years in Interscholastic league. My senior year of high school my Interscholastic team won Regionals and competed at the national tournament hosted at UVA.”
Nick came to the Polo team with minimal experience, yet he’s so glad he got involved. “This is one of the most unique sports I have ever played. There are so many factors that can determine a match’s outcome. Everyone is super helpful to new players, so don’t be afraid if you have no idea what you’re doing.”
Polo fits the Cal Poly motto to a “T”. Brandon, who came with experience riding Hunter/ Jumpers and Interscholastic competition in high school, encourages others to get involved in Polo. “Even though you might not know anything about the sport it is still worth it to come out and give it a try. I didn’t know anything about polo coming to Cal Poly, but with the learn by doing mentality, along with everyone around you for support and help when you need it, you will excel with time.”
Thank you to Donors, Coach and the Club
“Megan Judge founded Central Coast Polo Club in 2002 and has been coaching for more than 20 years. She is rated as a professional player and is asked to play in high-goal games quite often. A Cal Poly alum, Megan continues to grow and support the club as well as develop well-rounded players. As a team we are incredibly grateful to have her as a coach and to have access to the facility she has built from the ground up,” Sydney appropriately acknowledges all her coach puts into the team.
Additional appreciation comes from Megan herself, “All this coach can say is thank you to everyone who made it possible with special recognition to Maggie Papka, a Cal Poly graduate student, and supporting coach, Joel Baker. Congrats to Cal Poly seniors Megan Wurden and Nick Nelms. Many thanks as well to Mary Beth Nimocks Oppenheimer and the Oppenheimer Family for a beautiful Facility at Cal Poly, Jaymie Noland and the Cal Poly State University – College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
The ranch where Central Coast Polo runs their program is also a boarding facility with a 100 head capacity, an arena and an organic farm. It is located at 2320 Clark Valley Road, Los Osos, CA 93402.
Ride horse, hit ball with stick, pus, learn a lot and gain new friendships along the way. This sums up the 2019-2020 season for the Cal Poly Polo Team. If you are looking for a new gig on horseback go checkout what is going on at Central Coast Polo Club.
All photos courtesy of: Essence Captured
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