The excitement is beginning to mount out past East Hill Plaza, as teams from all over the country prepare to compete in the 2006 USPA Intercollegiate national championships. Beginning today, Oxley Equestrian Center and Cornell University will play host to the most prestigious collegiate polo tournament of the year. The winner, on both the men’s and the women’s sides, will be crowned the unanimous national champion.
“It is really quite an honor to host this tournament,” said head coach David Eldredge ’81. “It is tremendous opportunity to show off what we have as a program.”
More than just hosting, both of Cornell’s teams will be competing in this week’s tournament, aiming to take their shots at their respective titles. Tonight, both squads will play their first round matches, with the women’s team taking on Ivy League foe Yale at 5:00 p.m., followed by the men’s match up against California-Davis at 7:00 p.m..
The women’s team has been looking forward to a rematch with Yale since losing twice to the Bulldogs earlier in the season – 14-12 on Nov. 11 and 14-8 on Jan. 27. The Red is not anticipating a third loss, however, and is eager to redeem itself tonight.
“We are looking forward to showing everyone how much better we are,” said junior Ariel Katz. “We want to beat them soundly because they are our Ivy League rivals.”
After winning five straight national titles from 2000 to 2004, the Red is itching to bring the Katydid Farms Trophy back to Ithaca after losing to UConn in last year’s national championship.
“It is really important to us to bring back the trophy,” said junior Julie Nicholson. “We have a lot of Big Red spirit that has really encouraged us this season. We hope that will help us get [the trophy] again.”
This last weekend, the Red played a preparation game for the nationals against Marlan Farms, losing a tight 16-12 match to the capable club team. The loss helped much more than it damaged, as it gave the Red a chance to work on its play directly before national competition.
“I accomplished just what I wanted in the [Marlan Farms] game,” Eldredge said. “We sharpened our skills and did things very well.”
If Cornell can defeat Yale in the first round, it will take on the winner of tomorrow night’s match between Colorado State and Virginia in the semifinals. The Red split the season series with the Cavaliers and never saw action against the Rams.
On the men’s side, Cornell will take on a UC-Davis team with whom it is very unfamiliar.
“We don’t know a lot about Davis,” said freshman Bobby Harvey. “It should be a good game. It is our chance to go out and show what we have. Hopefully, that will make the other teams in the tournament a little more worried about us.”
The Red knows that No. 1 seed Texas A&M awaits the winner of this first-round match and will be watching the game mindful of the semifinal contest.
“It is real important to make a statement in the [UC-Davis] game,” said junior Stan Feldman. “We want to blow them out of the water so that Texas A&M has to think a little harder when they play us.”
As defending national champions, the men are not burdened with some of the usual pressures of teams holding that kind of hardware – instead, they are relishing the role of the sleeper, hoping to surprise some teams and keep the Townsend Trophy.
“There really isn’t as much pressure,” said sophomore Brian Fairclough. “We are seeded fourth, which means we are not expected to win.”
That being said, the undertones of pressure still surround the team, as the athletes are all aware that they have something that every other team in the country has been striving for all season long. Even Harvey, who wasn’t around for last year’s title run, understands this aspect of defending a title.
“I see the trophy every single day,” he said. “I know how important it is.”
The men also played a game this past weekend to get ready for nationals, beating Maryland, 19-14, on Friday night. The game welcomed Fairclough back into the lineup after sitting out the regional tournament.
“It worked getting Brian back in there,” Harvey said. “We are able to play our roles a lot better.”
The men’s and women’s squads will be benefited by the undeniable presence of home field advantage. In polo, home field advantage means much more than just understanding quirky bounces and unusual angles, it means getting to ride your own horses – a tremendous help to any squad.
“It gives us a comfort level,” Fairclough said. “We know the horses and the way the arena plays.”
“I think [home field advantage] is huge,” Katz said. “The fact that we get to play a larger range of our horses and the fact that we are used to all of them is really in our favor. I don’t think most people realize how important the horse really is.”
Virginia, UConn, and Yale will also bring horses to compete this week.
Offering another aspect of home field advantage, Oxley bombards opponents with a flurry of banners reminding them of the unmatched tradition and success of Cornell polo.
“It is like the feeling you get when you walk into Lynah,” said Eldredge. “When you come in here, you see that Cornell has always been there and has always been successful. That does give us an advantage.”
Even with certain things on their side, the men’s squad knows it will be a difficult task to defend its championship. The level of the talented teams coming in does not give the Red an advantage on paper. But the game, of course, is not played within the margins.
“We are right there. We are definitely a contender,” said Harvey. “If we all play together, we have a shot at winning it all.”
For the women, strong play will likely earn them another shot at UConn in the finals. From there, it is all about outperforming the opponent.
“We have to play the polo [match] of our lives,” Katz said. “We have to communicate, we have to hit well. But if we play really, really well, we can do it.”
All optimism aside, both Cornell squads are aware of the task presented to them and stand ready to compete in hopes of enhancing the Red’s already illustrious polo tradition. This is the time of year when championships are earned.
“There is no room for error anymore,” said Feldman.
Archived article by Patrick Blakemore
Sun Staff Writer