The top female youth players in the US collided in Illinois for the 2021 National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Girls’ Championship. The tournament, held last September 10 and 12, featured four teams who competed for the grand title.
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. Consolation finals and other events were held at Morgan Creek Polo Club and Due West Polo Club.
Capturing decisive victories in their respective semifinals, Girls Pink, with Kelsey Bray, Grace Fleishmann, Reagan Leitner, and Madison Jordan met Girls Purple, composed of Saralyn Painter, Elise Pardue, Caroline Mathews, and Summer Kneece, to determine the top team in the competition.
Ahead by just .5 goals entering the final chukker, Girls Purple scored two more goals to pull ahead and claim the 6.5 to 5 victory. Saralyn says, “What worked well for our team was communication and trust because we all had to trust each other to execute plays. We also never gave up and we kept a positive attitude!”
Driving forward in the early stages of the match, Purple faced a resilient Pink defense. After another chance in front of goal was stopped, Caroline found an opening to secure the first field goal of the match and a 1.5 to 0 advantage.
Purple’s lead was short-lived, as Pink responded with consecutive field goals one from Reagan and another from Madison to give the team their first lead of the game. “We were definitely looking out for Madison and Reagan,” Saralyn explains. “We were just making sure we were always on them.”
The evenly-matched teams continued alternating goals through the end of the half, with Madison adding her second goal off a Penalty 2. The youngest player in the tournament, 14-year-old Saralyn pushed Purple back in front with a beautiful run riding grey Easter Fox to end the half, leaving the score at 3.5 to 3.
Drawing on the experience of coach Tiger Kneece, Purple held Pink at bay conceding only one penalty conversion to Madison for the third lead change of the game. “It was just minor adjustments,” coach Tiger Kneece states.
Pink tried to extend their lead further, shooting at goal four times in the third chukker. However, they were unable to find the mark, providing an opening for Purple to utilize their knock-in strategy.
Showcasing a well-rounded line-up, Elise added her first goal for Purple in the final seconds of the third chukker, giving all four players one goal each and restoring Purple’s 0.5 goal advantage.
The tense moments of the final chukker resulted in a tightly marked style of play, but Summer fought through traffic to score. On the following throw-in, Purple kept possession—and it was Summer who came through in the clutch again, scoring her third goal of the game.
A final push from Pink that resulted in a goal from Reagan left them 1.5 goals behind as Purple celebrated the 6.5 to 5 victory.
Quickly building chemistry throughout the week, Purple drew from previous competitions to find success. “I’ve played with Saralyn before in Saratoga. I played against Caroline and Elise at Nationals, so to be able to play with them is a great feeling,” Summer shares.
Teammate Elise adds, “The entire team gelled really well on and off the field, which also led to our success in the tournament.”
The wealth of knowledge provided by coach Tiger helped propel Purple to the title. “Tiger Kneece never gave up on us and he gave us a great strategy,” Saralyn echoes.
Coaching in the NYTS Girls’ Championship for the third time, coach Tiger had the honor of coaching his daughter Summer to the win. “Girls Pink had some really good offensive players and we knew we were going to have to contain them to stay in the game. It can be challenging and fun at the same time to coach my daughter,” the coach explains.
For her exceptional play scoring three goals in both the semifinal and final, Summer was awarded Most Valuable Player. Utilizing the advice from her dad, Summer focused on not rushing the play.
“He always told me to take my time with the ball and to have patience,” she offers. “The key to our success was really trusting each other and shutting down the offensive part of the Pink team.” Earlier in the week, she also had the opportunity to join the Central Region in the Open division.
Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Sagebrush, an 8-year-old chestnut mare in Reagan’s string. “I bought her from Hope Arellano in 2019 and she is one of the smallest horses in my string—but is very quick and handy!” she exclaims. “Sagebrush made me very proud as she played so hard this past week. Even though she is small like me, Sagebrush is strong and shows all the other ponies that size doesn’t stop her!”
Twin Robyn Leitner, competing for Girls Blue, was given the Sportsmanship Award for her continued positive attitude, fairness, and support for her peers on and off the field.
Falling just short in the final, Girls Pink’s Madison received the Horsemanship Award and a beautiful bridle from Texas Polo.
The emergence of the NYTS Girls’ Championship is a testament to the work of NYTS Chair, Chrys Beal. Hosting four girls’ teams for the first time, the competition has steadily increased to create a fun, rewarding environment for all players. About the experience, Summer relates, “Playing the NYTS tournament, I’ve met so many friends and so many different people, and I have great friends for life now because of the program.”
Photographs by Andrew Meier and Kaile Roos