Each team securing a strong win in their respective semifinals, number one seed Aiken Polo Club, with Summer Kneece, Sophie Grant, Robyn Leitner, Reagan Leitner, and two-time defending champions Maryland Polo Club, with Kylie Beard, Sierra Blevins, Jordan Peterson, entered the Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship (GNIS) Final with confidence after their first games.
Receiving a bye into the semifinals, Aiken made their tournament debut with a decisive victory while Maryland made an equally strong showing in their opening game at New Bridge Polo & Country Club in Aiken, South Carolina. Putting Maryland on defense from the first chukker, Aiken extended their lead throughout the game to claim their first national championship win 17-5, denying their opponents a tenth tournament title.
“Having the opportunity to come to Aiken and lead such a young team and the new Aiken Youth Polo organization to a national title is especially gratifying. I’m so thankful to have such a supportive coach, teammates, and family to finish this exciting journey of high school arena polo,” Sophie comments.
The final took place on May 22, as both teams competed for the most important trophy of their interscholastic career. Claiming the first three goals of the game, Aiken commanded the scoreboard from the opening throw in as Maryland Polo Club’s Sierra added one to the tally. Holding Maryland scoreless throughout the second chukker, Aiken continued to gain offensive momentum, with Summer adding three consecutive goals for her team.
“Our strategy was to be aggressive, communicate, and really take our time with the ball,” Summer explains. Following an impressive display of team play and skill, Aiken Polo Club moved into halftime with a comfortable 8-1 lead.
Hammering in her sixth goal to open the second half, Summer was met by strong resistance from Jordan who fired back with four goals for Maryland, including a two-pointer. Contributing a series of goals to the scoreboard, Aiken remained solid and consistently strong throughout the remainder of the game.
“I think the order of our horses really helped!” Robyn offers. “I started in the second chukker on Miley who is my favorite to play and a great mare to get me into the start of the game. I ended on Shorty in the fourth, who can be a little strong at times, but he played well for me having already played one chukker.”
Although having a seven-goal lead entering the final chukker, Aiken was relentless in their pursuit of their first national title with Summer picking up three additional goals. Highly effective in the back, Sophie closed out the final with a pair of goals to sweep another decisive victory 17-5. Capping off a great evening of polo, the team extended the celebration to the New Bridge clubhouse where they enjoyed a team dinner.
“We wanted to keep the game as open as possible and play to the strength of each teammate,” Sophie says about her team’s strategy. “Summer is very good offensively so we wanted to keep her up in front receiving passes and scoring goals. Robyn and Reagan are really good in the middle and work hard taking the man. I thought I could make the greatest contribution by playing back. I planned to shut down Maryland’s offense and hit backshots and passes up to my teammates, trusting that they would score the goals.”
“Another strategy was our lineups for the throw ins,” she continues. “When we were on the good side of the throw in, I would line up next to the umpire. This positioning would let me jump on the ball and get the play going towards our goal.”
Splitting a position with her identical twin sister, Robyn was proud of what the girls had accomplished together. “This win was a huge compliment for my team and represented Aiken’s youth players,” Robyn muses. “Being a part of such a great team who made Aiken’s first GNIS trophy happen was an honor. I am going to miss playing with Sophie next year!”
Claiming her fourth Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship, Sophie felt that this win was particularly special as team captain. “I won the first three championships in 2019, 2018, and 2016 with my two older sisters, Abbie and Maddie, in Maryland,” she recalls. “But having the opportunity to come to Aiken and lead such a young team and the new Aiken Youth Polo organization to a national title is especially gratifying. I’m so thankful to have such a supportive coach, teammates and family to finish this exciting journey of high school arena polo.”
All Stars included Summer and Sophie from Aiken Polo Club, Saralyn Painter from Gardnertown Polo Club, and Jordan from Maryland Polo Club. Kylie from Maryland Polo Club received the Sportsmanship Award.
As this was the first year the Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship was livestreamed, fans had a unique opportunity to watch interscholastic arena polo on Global Polo TV. “I was so thankful the games were livestreamed as my brothers, sisters and other family members were able to watch from their workplace,” Reagan shares. “I had grandparents in Pennsylvania and Arizona who watched and my sisters in Virginia and Scotland were able to give me pointers at halftime,” Sophie adds.
Holding an impressive seven-goal women’s arena handicap, Sophie recently changed from competing with her longtime Maryland team to joining Aiken last year. “In 2020, I moved to Aiken to become a more well-rounded player and, specifically, to improve my outdoor polo,” she says.
“I also thought it was a great opportunity to join Tiger Kneece’s young Aiken Youth Polo (AYP) interscholastic team. In our 2020 regional final, AYP played against Maryland and for me that was mentally harder than this final because I had to play against my good friend and former teammate Catie Stueck, with whom I had won three national titles.”
Summer received the Horsemanship Award. “Winning the championship means so much because our team has been working for this moment for so long,” she reveals. “We prepared by having many practices with our coach, my dad, and we’ve also been playing grass polo which helped us.”
“It was a great feeling to coach my daughter in this championship tournament,” coach Tiger Kneece says. “We started this journey together four years ago and it’s a dream come true.”
Chunky Monkey, owned by UVA, received Best Playing Pony honors, while UVA 1 was awarded Best Playing String. Ending her senior year on a high note, Sophie is looking forward to continuing to play polo in South Carolina.
“For the next year, I have decided to be based in Aiken,” she opens up. “I’ve made many friends and have found Aiken to be a very supportive environment for young players. I have some green horses to train as well and I’m excited to see where that takes me.”
Photographs by Larry Johnson