Houston Polo Club wrangles their first Open National Interscholastic Championship title after a fierce fight against Aiken Polo Club.
The 2022 Open National Interscholastic Championship Final pitted hometown heroes Houston Polo Club against Aiken Polo Club. On March 20 at the Brookshire Polo Club arena, each team carried a bye into the semifinals—Aiken Polo Club topped Yale Polo Club with 14 to 10. Meanwhile, Houston Polo Club advanced to their second consecutive finals appearance following a dominant 18 to 6 victory over Lakeside Polo Club.
Houston Polo Club presented players Joe Bob Lequerica, Will Mudra, Lance Stefanakis, Ashvath Bhatia, and Judah Altic. Aiken Polo Club’s slate is composed of Madison Jordan, Josh Escapite, Aiden Meeker, and Lazaro Gorosito.
Meeting for the first time in the tournament, Houston Polo Club grasped an early three-goal lead. However, their second half foul troubles allowed Aiken to remain in contention. Maintaining their early lead entering the final chukker, efforts from Will and Lance lifted Houston Polo Club to the 10 to 7 victory, delivering the club’s first Open National Interscholastic Championship title.
Lance struck first for Houston on a booming shot to goal from just inside the 25-yard line. Teammate Will followed suit to score out of the throw in. Keeping Aiken scoreless, Lance rounded out the first chukker, converting a Penalty 3 to place Houston ahead with 3 to 0.
Falling short in the 2021 finals to Gardnertown Polo Club, Lance emphasized the importance of getting off to an early lead. “Last year, we fought in a short time and lost in the last chukker. Because of that, we were even more determined to win this year,” he explains. “We dedicated ourselves to working harder, as a team and as individuals.”
The polo player continues,” It took waking up a few hours earlier everyday, practicing a few more times every week, and having a collective mission to win a national championship.”
Riding their own string in the second, Aiken found their footing offensively outscoring their opponents with 3 to 2. Madison carried the ball along the boards and through the corner to get Aiken back in the game. Josh scored another two consecutive goals riding his personal mare, Katniss, to tie the match with 3 all.
In response to Aiken’s positive shift in momentum, Houston’s Joe Bob stepped up to keep Aiken’s Aiden off the scoreboard. Combining for two goals in the chukker, teammates Lance and Will ended the half with 5 to 3 in favor of Houston.
Relaying their strategy in the break, Lance notes, “[We wanted to] play our own game and play open. Aiken is very strong with the ball, so we had to be focused on the man.”
Motivated to begin the second half, Houston dialed into their defense. However, their zeal got them into foul trouble, with Josh taking advantage of a Penalty 2. Aiden and Jordan’s strong play held Houston to just one goal from the field and one from the penalty line. The chukker ended with a 7 to 4 Houston lead.
Holding a slim three-goal lead entering the final chukker, Joe Bob expresses his feelings. “I felt a little nervous towards the end, but I knew we could pull it out,” he remarks. “We just needed to avoid fouling.”
With help from a pony goal, Houston ramped up their lead to four. However, Aiken refused to back down. Jordan, intent on settling the score, knocked in back-to-back goals to cut Aiken’s deficit in half.
Will answered with a field goal of his own, but Madison once again capitalized from the penalty line. Determined not to let a second chance at the title slip away, Joe Bob was able to hold off the offensive powers of Aiken in the final moments. This allowed Lance to retaliate on a final goal along the boards, cementing the impressive 10 to 7 championship win.
Lance reflects on his sixth goal of the match. “I felt like we needed to win every play and act like it’s [tied] to keep playing hard and not let up,” he shares. “The last goal I scored I felt like we needed to keep going no matter how much we were up by. The score in the arena can change so quick.”
Playing for the title in front of a home crowd of family, friends and fans was all the more rewarding for Joe Bob. “It was very loud when goals were scored or fouls were drawn. It means a lot for me to be here in Houston because my family was able to enjoy the win with me.,” he says.
Similarly, Will shares his thoughts. “Houston has been trying to win a national title for a while now, it means a lot to my team and coach to win on home turf. I’m very blessed to have people I have around me constantly motivating me and my team,” the polo player muses.
An elated Judah adds, “It was amazing. To be a part of Houston Polo Club’s first National Championship will live with me forever!”
A celebratory Ashvath notes the hard work and close bond of his Houston teammates. “This is truly a moment we worked for. I want to thank Lance, the best player I’ve ever played with, Will, the best teammate ever, and Joe Bob, the most talented player I’ve ever seen. We worked constantly to become champions and we finally did it!” he exclaims.
All-Stars in the Open National Interscholastic Championship included Madison Jordan (Aiken Polo Club), Aiden Meeker (Aiken Polo Club), Ethan Bankhead (Lakeside Polo Club), and Lance Stefanakis (Houston Polo Club). The Sportsmanship Award was presented to Luke Howe (Yale Polo Club), while Houston’s Will Mudra took home the Horsemanship Award.
Aiken Polo Club was awarded Best Playing String. Titona (Pistola x Lamborghini), a 10-year-old mare owned by Aiken Polo Club’s Lazaro Gorosito, was presented with Best Playing Pony honors.
“She’s from my father’s breeding operation, Fleur de Liz. I think Madison Jordan played her the best overall in the tournament. It was really special for me and my father to get BPP, especially as this was my first ever BPP award,” he notes.
“Winning Best Playing String is a very prestigious award,” Madison states. “The horses are one of the most important factors in the sport. Our string consisted of Aiden Meeker’s (Jasmine, Fabiana, Mongha), Lazaro Gorosito’s (Titona), and Josh Escapite’s (Achilles, Katniss, Secretaria) ponies.”
Named an All-Star in the tournament, Madison shared her thoughts on reaching the Open National Interscholastic Championship final. “It was an empowering experience being the only female playing in the open final. Winning the All-Star award is an honor and I’m very proud to win this award alongside my captain Aiden Meeker,” she muses. “I know we left it all out there, and I wouldn’t have wanted to share this experience with anyone other than these three amazing boys.”
Fellow All-Star Aiden took the time to express gratitude for his Aiken Polo teammates. He says, “Everyone played their hearts out and gave it their all out there. At the end, I couldn’t help but cry because of how much hard work my team put into getting to the finals. Even though we may have not won, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”