The National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Girls’ Championship has returned for a second consecutive year. The games were culminated in a matchup between Electric Charge—with Victoria Picha, Winifred Branscum, Olivia Reynolds, and Micaela Saracco—and Ever Ready—with Francesca Felhaber, Sophia DeAngelis, Aurora Knox, and Robyn Leitner.
The final was held at the picturesque La Herradura Polo Club in Santa Ynez, California on September 11. Controlling the match from the outset, a dominant four-goal performance from 15-year-old Macaela, coupled with a formidable defense, powered Electric Charge to a commanding 6 to 1.5 victory.
Switching from the motif of colors in 2021, this year’s girls’ teams honored Hall of Fame Horses to Remember. All of the Girls’ competitors, apart from Micaela and Kelsey Bray of Delta Dawn rented their horses for the tournament. The participants were able to display the ability to adapt quickly to new challenges, growth in horsemanship, sportsmanship, and skill. It was further complimented by the invaluable presence of their individual coaches in Jimmy Wright and Felipe Viana, alongside the mentorship of La Herradura Polo Club’s owners and founders Memo and Meghan Gracida.
Spending the summer at La Herradura, 19-year-old Olivia gladly accepted her first NYTS invitation as a welcome surprise. “I wanted to play in the NYTS Championship, but I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve attended other NYTS tournaments as a spectator, and I think this one stood out with the facility and all the work that was put into it.”
She continues, “The whole experience was great, the facilities are amazing, and the horses from Memo were amazing. Meghan and the whole Gracida family are here to help us and I thought it was nice to have them as another resource aside from the coaches. This was the perfect tournament. It’s beautiful here—I don’t want to leave!”
A running theme for the success of Electric Charge throughout the tournament was open and honest communication. Discovering their teams approximately two weeks before the tournament, relationships between the new teammates were crucial. Winifred notes, “Our chemistry showed right off the bat! We created a group chat and started making connections that were reflected as soon as we got on the field. We all told each other, ‘We’re going to be honest,’ and we weren’t afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We all worked together and understood what some of us were good at and what some of us weren’t. We took advantage of that.”
Echoing Winifred’s sentiments, Olivia adds, “From the beginning we were back home texting and trying to figure out our plan. Our communication was light and fun. When something wasn’t going right, we immediately fixed it and we were honest with each other, saying, ‘Hey guys, I can’t do this, can you?’ and we switched. There was no blame if we made mistakes. We were worried about the next play and not the last one.”
Victoria chimes in, “We would ask what type of horses we like to ride, what our positioning was. I’ve been really fortunate with the people on my team and my brother team [Southeast]. They are all such great people.”
Getting to know her new teammates, Olivia states, “I knew Mica from playing against her before. She beat me in a women’s tournament here [at La Herradura] last week. I knew of my other teammates, but I’d never seen them play.”
“I was so excited,” Winifred exclaims. “I worked really hard to get here and it was more than I could have ever imagined. My teammates were such a blast, my opponents and everyone were so nice, and we got to listen to Meghan and Memo Gracida. It was so much fun because of the people.”
Meanwhile, Micaela comments, “I’ve played at La Herradura, and I only knew Olivia. But the way we played—it is like we’ve known each other forever!”
Awarding Ever Ready with 0.5 on handicap at the onset of the match, Electric Charge’s lineup of first time NYTS competitors began with a jolt as Winifred carried their first goal over the line with help from all teammates. Donning the captain’s armband, two consecutive goals from Micaela followed to give Electric Charge a 3 to 0.5 lead. With time quickly expiring in the half, Sophia finally found some footing to score on Ever Ready’s sole successful drive of the day, as Electric Charge entered the break with an assertive 3 to 1.5 advantage.
Receiving constant feedback from Coach Jimmy, Micaela shared a key moment of support for her in the final. “I started out angry with myself. All the nerves and stress piled up. I was stressed with myself, but he helped calm me down. He was an amazing coach and supported us and gave us the ideas he had,” she describes.
Victoria also praised Wright. “He was great,” she offers. “He said all the right things and had all the right tactics. He knew us better than we knew ourselves in some moments, even though we just met him.”
“Part of the reason they got to the finals is they played in their natural positions,” Coach Jimmy points out. “Mica liked to play in the back. Winnie did a good job at three, which is something we switched today. Tori did a great job in the middle in the #2 slot, and Olivia did a great job putting a lot of pressure in front of the hitter. They did a good job rotating those positions as well as the game went on and as the play opened up.”
Unwilling to give any momentum to Ever Ready, Victoria stresses the importance of her defensive game. “I play a heavy defensive game and want to clear out the field for my other teammates and stay on that man,” she shares.
Micaela pitches in, “We wanted to mark the man how we’ve been playing in practices. In the first game, we did well in both of them and we knew how we wanted to play.” Noting the best piece of advice received during the tournament, Victoria states she learned, “To stop saying ‘sorry,’ make mistakes, and play the play you have.”
Stifling hopes for an Ever Ready comeback, Winifred opened the second half increasing Electric Charge’s lead to 4 to 1.5. Despite facing two returning NYTS competitors in Sophia and Robyn, Electric Charge’s ability to keep Ever Ready pinned on defense allowed Micaela to circulate and find space on the field. Hitting back-to-back goals on consecutive breakaway runs, Micaela ended her day leading Electric Charge with four goals. A shutdown second half left their skilled opponents off the scoreboard to earn the NYTS Girls’ Championship with 6 to 1.5.
Coaching Electric Charge and Southeast to their respective finals in the NTYS Championship, Coach Jimmy reflects on capturing the Girls’ Championship title. “The team did a really good job of playing disciplined and as consistent as possible, going one-person for one-person,” he observes. “The other team is extremely physical and talented. We did a good job of playing patient and waiting for the free balls, playing defensive first, allowing the offensive positions to present themselves, and being quick to the ball.”
Capping off a spectacular performance, including leading the tournament with eight goals, Micaela was named Most Valuable Player. “It means everything,” she excitedly shares. “I was so happy to be playing with my teammates, and I wouldn’t have received MVP without them.” Reflecting on her success on both ends of the ball, she continues, “I was confident in myself, my teammates, and my horses.”
One of the few competitors riding her own string, Micaela’s 15-year-old mare Chapaleufu Polola was awarded Best Playing Pony. “It was a huge advantage to play my own horses,” she says. The Saracco family has owned Chapaleufu Polola since she was a foal. After previously winning BPP in the 2018 edition of the NYTS Championship Girls All-Star Challenge with Hope Kerley, this year’s final was her last game before her retirement in Argentina.
“I’m so happy she got Best Playing Pony,” Micaela muses. “It’s her last day here and her last game. My dad gave her to me, and she’s stayed with me. But she’s still a family horse—my younger brother and dad ride her. She’s super agile, quick, and I feel my most confident on her. We want to get as many babies out of her as possible!”
For her consistent demonstration of horsemanship on and off the field, Robyn was the recipient of the Horsemanship Award. “I think becoming a great player means becoming an even better rider,” Robyn points out. “I was blessed to have a riding background where horsemanship was prioritized. I was very grateful for the horses I had this week—they all played amazing!”
Isabelle Brockett of Nebraska Sunset received the Sportsmanship Award for her continued positive attitude, fairness, and support for her peers in polo. “It was a huge honor for me to receive the award,” she shares. “I was so grateful for everyone’s support! I was extremely excited to come to California, and just getting to play was one of the best experiences ever. Everyone was incredibly nice and I couldn’t have asked for a better time!”
Speaking to the rapid growth of the NYTS program, USPA Director of Player Development Amanda Snow proudly shares, “What’s most impressive for me is to see all four girls’ teams in full swing. There was lots of talent there, and I hope the girls’ teams keep building more momentum. NYTS has grown tremendously. It’s become something that the players are really dying to participate in, which means so much. It’s become something you plan your whole season and summer around.”
Amanda goes on, “More importantly, the qualifiers have created so many more opportunities for these kids to play against each other outdoor at a local level. This really strengthen the polo roots on the ground. I think in the first year, we had twelve tournaments. This year, we had nearly 30. We have lots of kids that play in them, and people travel. My whole dream for the program from the beginning was for it to be something that I wish existed when I was a kid growing up, and I think that it feels like it came true!”
As the first coach to have also competed in the NYTS championship, Coach Jimmy reflects on the importance of the experience. He says, “It gives players a lot of confidence and you get to meet players that you get to be around your whole life. It’s a preliminary example of how to play tournaments that hopefully translate to things like FIP. It’s a great place to meet new people and showcase yourself, especially with Global Polo.”
Noting the importance of celebrating youth polo in such a prestigious manner, Winifred elaborates, “It’s really good for American youth players to feel that if they work hard enough, and choose to do this, this is what it can be. I think it’s an amazing program. It connects people from all over the U.S.—I’ve even met people from Mexico and Canada. It’s incredible!”
Reflecting on her own accomplishments, she continues, “For me, it was putting in the time before I even got here on my horses and showing up to every NYTS tournament with a good attitude on and off the field. I’ve played three NYTS tournaments leading up to this, and I’ve averaged two or three for the last three years. I’ve been working towards this for a while, and I have two more years of eligibility. So I’m hoping to be back!”
Earlier in the day, Nebraska Sunset—with Isabelle Brockett, Ruby Decker, Reagan Leitner, and Elise Pardue—and Delta Dawn—with Caroline Mathews, Lauren Patoile, Lily Lequerica, and Kelsey Bray—faced off in the NYTS Girls’ Championship consolation final. They have five returning NYTS competitors in Reagan, Elise, Caroline, Lily, and Kelsey.
Receiving 0.5 on handicap, Nebraska Sunset set out to an early start. The contributions from Elise and Ruby gave their team a 2.5 to 0 lead at halftime. Regrouping at the break, goals from Caroline and Lily pulled Delta Dawn back within striking distance. But ultimately, Nebraska Sunset’s handicap provided the difference for the 2.5 to 2 win.
Photographs by Kerri Kerley