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UVA Dominates D1 Women’s Nat’l Championship

UVA Dominates D1 Women’s Nat’l Championship

The long-awaited Division I Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship was contested for the first time since 2019. It was held at Virginia Polo Inc. in Charlottesville, Virginia, previously cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The day found a long held friendly feud and meeting in an all-too-familiar rematch of the Women’s Southeastern Regionals. The University of Virginia Cavaliers geared up on their home turf hoping to avenge their previous loss to the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the final on April 9. 


UVA’s slate is composed of Elizabeth Owens, Alana Benz, Maddie Grant, Grace Burgert, and Katie Define. They faced their UK opponents Louisa Huber, Avery Evans, Lila Bennett, Taylor Nackers, and Grace Beck.


UVA’s strong offense and tireless effort enabled them to extend their lead with every passing chukker. Silencing their opponents and gaining the lead in the second, they emerged victorious in a captivating 17 to 9 win.

On April 7, UK delivered a decisive 25 to 6 win over Oklahoma State University in the first semifinal to earn their place in the championship game. Shortly after, UVA triumphed with 21 to 9 over defending champions Texas A&M in their respective semifinal.


Everything was on the line for UK senior Louisa and UVA seniors Maddie and Grace. Tension ran high leading up to the first throw-in of the final. Starting out on the UK string of horses, play was back-and-forth and highly aggressive. Both teams were holding each other to just one goal to end the first chukker. 


After their first meeting earlier in the season, UVA was prepared this time around for UK’s physicality. “I think they’re really aggressive, and that was something that caught us a little flat footed at regionals,” Grace, shares.

She adds, “They just came out with a lot of intensity. After regionals, we really worked our butts off to match that. It kind of came at the right time for us because it reignited what we needed. We had had such a successful season that we had gotten a little complacent, and so that was what we needed. And we were like, they aren’t winning again!”


UVA delivered an explosive response to a slow first chukker, scoring four goals from the field. Three of these came off the mallet of Maddie and one from Elizabeth. UVA’s increased defensive effort also kept UK off the scoreboard entirely. This gave the Cavaliers the edge of 5 to 1 by the end of the second chukker. 


Integrating a sports psychologist into their competition regime, the Cavaliers has two team sessions beginning in November. “We’ve always said ‘LFC’ which means loose, free and cocky,” Grace reveals. “That was something that the psychologist really wanted us to play with as a mentality. Believing in ourselves, because we were all capable players. And we all know that, so we should play like that. We should be confident in ourselves and confident in our teammates.”

Maddie clarifies the sentiments. “I think there’s a fine line between being confident in your own ability and being cocky. I think we really channeled it as confidence in our teammates and confidence in backing each other up.”


Maddie rode her favorite polo pony Valentina as she fired on all cylinders. She worked alongside Alana to add three more goals for UVA before the half. A fourth pony goal brought the Cavalier total score up to nine headed into halftime. 


Simultaneously showcasing their defensive prowess, UVA held UK to just one penalty conversion from Louisa. This ended the halftime with 9 to 2 in favor of UVA.


UK was able to catch UVA a bit off-guard at the opening of the second half. With several fouls committed by UVA, UK capitalized on several opportunities to get back in the game and narrow the gap. Taking full advantage, Louisa scored a field goal and sunk Penalty 3. Meanwhile, Lila made the most of a Penalty 5b to secure the first 2-pointer of the game. 


Both Louisa and Lila’s penalty conversions were scored within the last 10 seconds of the fourth chukker. This sparked a great roaring cheer from die hard fans on the sidelines. Adding another penalty conversion to the tally, Maddie picked up her sixth goal to end the chukker, with UVA maintaining the lead with 10 to 6.

Maddie’s unrelenting play and steadfast determination resulted in six additional goals for UVA. A goal from Elizabeth in the fifth also gave UVA extra room to breathe. 


The Cavaliers were able to hold the Wildcats scoreless for the second time in the fifth chukker. They kept them to just three goals in the sixth to solidify a resounding 17 to 9 win, their first since 2017.


UVA’s newfound confidence in themselves helped transcend their level of play as well. Maddie notes UVA’s change in playing style since their disappointing regional loss to UK. She remarks, “At regionals, we tried to get around UK’s physicality and use our horsepower to stop and turn and evade it. But you really can’t get away. So from that day on, we had practiced and we had to be physical and strong. We needed not to be winning the next play. We needed to be winning this play! So that was the biggest thing we changed.”


Finally grasping the prestigious national championship, seniors Maddie and Grace were elated to be able to leave their mark on intercollegiate polo. More so after so many years of waiting. Maddie recognizes this. “This win was not just for today or this year. Tt was for all of the years we’ve missed because of COVID-19.”


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For Maddie, a collegiate championship was a previously unfulfilled expectation. She had displayed powerful success throughout her interscholastic career, with five consecutive national final appearances and four interscholastic titles with Maryland Polo Club. All these achievements were attained before moving to college.

Maddie was overjoyed to finally claim the elusive title in her polo career. “It means the world. These girls are my best friends and there’s no one I’d rather win with,” the woman polo player explains. 


Similarly, Grace shares her thoughts. “I’m just really proud of my team, myself, and our horses. For finally getting to do what we know we’ve been capable of for the past few years. It’s really rewarding to see all our hard work and my whole time at UVA pay off in my fourth year.”


All-Stars in the Division I Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship included Joanie Jackson (Texas A&M), Alana Benz (UVA), Lila Bennett (UK), and Maddie Grant (UVA). The Connie Upchurch Award for sportsmanship was presented to Madison Lange (Texas A&M). Hannah Reynolds (Texas A&M) received the David Wenning Award for horsemanship.


Best Playing String was awarded to the University of Virginia. Their string also included Best Playing Pony, Bella. A fan favorite around Virginia Polo Club, Alana sheds light on why she’s so loved. “Bella not only is a dream to play. She also has the best demeanor and is so easy to get along with. She’s great on a set, great to single or stick and ball, and overall has no issues. So anyone can jump on her and play a great chukker!”

Elizabeth also chimed in on Bella’s kindhearted disposition. The woman polo player muses, “Everyone loves her for her personality, too. She is the sweetest pony and loves affection and cuddles.” 


Throughout the tournament, Bella was played by Texas A&M’s Madison Lange in her respective semifinal game, UK’s Avery in the third chukker of the final, and UVA’s Elizabeth in the last chukker of the final. A big admirer of Bella, Elizabeth also spoke to her athleticism on the field. She shares, “She is all around very athletic and great at everything. She will immediately launch forward into a play and is incredibly speedy for her small size. She also has an amazing bump—she is just all around perfect.”


This win was even more meaningful for the Cavaliers because it took place at their home arena. They were also surrounded by an increasingly boisterous group of fans and supporters. Grace notes the very clear difference in sideline energy that helped fuel UVA’s success and ensure a better outcome than their regionals. “It was really nice for us to have everybody here, because for our regionals, it was spring break. So nobody showed up. It wasn’t right without our club team. Our club team is a really an important part of the club. It’s not just the varsity teams that care about the program.”


Maddie also shared how important it was to UVA to be able to win in their home arena. “We’ve always wanted to have nationals out here. So we practice out here as often as we can. It’s the best arena. It’s so fun, it’s big, you can play open. We knew that would play to our strengths. Because Kentucky is very physical, out here you can get around it and go. You have space to run and it’s more like playing on the grass. We’re really happy Lou put in a lot of hours on the tractor dragging and we were really happy to be out here and bring it home!”

Despite how much time he had to spend on the tractor dragging the arena, UVA Coach Lou Lopez knew that the effort would be well worth it. Losing several players to graduation this spring, Lou reflects on the future of UVA polo. “I’m graduating two boys and two girls. The dynamic with the boys that are left is going to be really good because they get along really well. I’m excited to be working with them over the course of next year. And the same with the girls. We’ll be here again!”


The Women’s National Intercollegiate Championship Final will air for the first time on ESPNU on April 17.

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