With an unprecedented display of offensive fire power and relentless determination, the Eastern Region team takes the trophy for the 2021 National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Championship final against Wild Card.
The games were hosted by Oak Brook Polo Club and presented by the Chicago Polo Association. The semi-final and final matches were played at Las Brisas Polo Club and Oak Brook Polo Club, with the consolation finals and other events held at Morgan Creek Polo Club and Due West Polo Club.
Preventing their opponents from controlling the scoreboard with strong defensive plays, Wild Card, with Daniel Miranda, Josh Escapite, Vlad Tarashansky, and Taylor Palacios, kept the game tight throughout. But ultimately, Eastern Region, composed of Sophie Grant, Aiden Meeker, Winston Painter, and Landen Eckbo Daniels, relied on effective communication to help them stay just out of reach to claim their second Cecil Smith Cup with 8 to 6.
Springing into action and setting the pace from the opening bowl in, Sophie passed the ball up to Aiden who secured a goal for Eastern Region within the first minute of play.
“Our communication was great, and we’re not trying to do all the fancy stuff,” Aiden says. “We were just able to release the ball and go.”
Starting off with two-goals on handicap, Wild Card’s advantage quickly evaporated as both sides capitalized from the penalty line. “We wanted to keep the game as open as possible because it plays to our team’s strengths,” Sophie explains. “Knowing we would be down two goals at the first throw-in, we had to come out strong and have patience.”
Known for bold moves on the field, Winston managed to steal possession from Taylor on Best Playing Pony Soda and equalize the scoreboard with 3-all. Striking early in the second with back-to-back goals, Winston’s attack put Wild Card on the defensive.
Always anticipating their opponents’ next move and reacting accordingly, Eastern Region created space for Winston to score his fifth goal of the game, ending halftime with 6 to 4.
“Talking to each other helped us get a better idea of not only what was in front of us, but also behind us. It was like having eyes in the back of your head,” Aiden comments.
Although their efforts were not reflected with many goals on the scoreboard, Wild Card’s defensive skills did give them a reprieve in the second half as Eastern faced a scoreless third chukker.
Taking advantage of a Penalty 2 opportunity, Josh sunk his third goal of the day and brought Wild Card within one heading into the fourth chukker. Looking to extend their lead in the final chukker, Eastern utilized every member of the team to make their plays happen.
“My job was to stick to the man and play defense,” Landen shares. “I would back the ball to Winston or Aiden and they would hit it up to Sophie].” Executing a strategic team play, Aiden lofted the ball to Sophie who made a beautiful nearside neck shot to goal.
Consistently scoring one goal per chukker, Josh answered back yet again with a penalty conversion as the minutes counted down. Not wanting to risk a possible overtime chukker, Sophie stole possession and made a final breakaway on LAC Ace, the ball rolling over the end line to seal the win for Eastern with 8 to 6.
Competing with friends and guided by her former Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) coach, Sophie was confident that the strength of those relationships would translate onto the field. “I believe that the well-rounded ability of all four players on our team led to our success and dominance,” she muses. “The chemistry between the four of us and our coach Tiger Kneece was great. We’re all close friends off the field so it was easy to gel together on the field.”
Although the only woman among the finalists, Sophie never allows her gender to steal focus from her undeniable skill. “I am not intimidated by being the only woman on the field,” she adds. “I always play as hard as I can, and I think my teammates and the players on the opposing team respect that and don’t treat me any differently.”
Participating as a NYTS coach for three years, Tiger Kneece ended the weekend with a double win, leading both the Eastern Region and Girls Purple to championship titles. “I know all of the Eastern kids and I’ve known a couple of them for a really long time through Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) and NYTS,” he relates. “They are good kids and good polo players so it’s fun to coach them.”
“Ultimately he gave us a lot of confidence,” Landen states. “We went over games, strategy, knock ins, throw ins–it was awesome.”
Earning their first trophy in 2019 followed by a loss in the 2020 NYTS Championship final, the Eastern Region returned to the 2021 competition stronger than ever. “Winston, Sophie, and I had a rough final last year, but this whole week, we just connected so well,” Aiden proudly shares.
Having the added benefit of familiarity with their polo ponies, Eastern Region was able to step onto the field knowing exactly what their mounts were capable of. “We lucked out because three of our team members were on their own horses and I was playing Mariano Obregon’s horses,” Winston says. “I think we were extra confident going into the final, having confidence in both our horses and each other. I think chemistry, horses, and a good attitude helped us win.”
“My brother [Justin Daniels] brought great horses from Ipswich, Massachusetts, on a two-day drive,” Landen further narrates. “It’s always an advantage playing on your own horses.”
As the 2020 defending champion with Florida Region, Landen was the only player on the field to claim the trophy consecutively with two different regions. “It was a fun experience learning to play with my former competitors and learning their strengths,” he comments. “I had a great time with all of them and it was cool to win for both Florida and Eastern.”
Contributing four goals to the Wild Card’s tally, Josh was named Matthew Cohen Most Valuable Player. “It honestly feels so amazing to be named MVP in such a huge tournament!”
He adds, “I worked very hard to achieve even playing in the tournament, so getting MVP felt even better. I need to work even harder to make sure that I can come back and play again. This opportunity was amazing and I will remember it forever!”
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Soda, a 7-year-old Argentine mare owned by Mariano Obregon and played by Winston in the first chukker. Knowing Mariano for a few years and spending a lot of time with him in Santa Barbara, California, Winston decided to reach out to see if he could rent horses for the tournament.
“I knew the quality of his horses and that he would be in Illinois this time of year, so he was the first person I called,” he says. “On the field, Soda is a pure machine—explosive speed, super light mouth, flat gallop, and comfortable stride. I am extremely glad she won Best Playing Pony, she deserved it.”
Winston also received the Horsemanship Award and a bridle from Texas Polo. Western Region’s Quinn Kyle received the Sportsmanship Award. “This was my first NYTS experience and it was a great way for me to broaden myself in the polo community,” Quinn shares. “The world of polo is small, so being able to meet other players close in age will benefit all of our futures. The NYTS program is also a great way to learn how to be a leader of a team and I am super grateful I got the opportunity to play in the championship.”
Transitioning into playing his first intercollegiate season at the University of Connecticut, Winston can sum up his years of experience competing in NYTS with one word: gratitude. “I just am now realizing how lucky I am to be able to share the field with all my
friends in a safe and fun environment that’s still competitive,” he reflects. “I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”
“We worked well together and the way we played as a team really showed what we could do,” Landens echoes. “After all the work we put in and playing against kids my own age, winning this championship two years in a row makes me really happy.”
Photographs by Andrew Meier and Kaile Roos