April 2, 2008

Red Advances to Finals

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Can you say click? Cornell’s Men’s Polo team certainly can. The third-seeded Red managed to click on all cylinders against second-seeded Virginia yesterday evening in the National Intercollegiate Polo Championship at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. The 5 p.m. start featured bitter rivals playing in their fifth head-to-head match of the season. The Cavaliers won three out of the first four contests and were missing their best player in the game they dropped to the Red. Refusing to dwell on the past, though, the Red was determined to get the better of the Wahoos this time.
Most sports experts claim that a team will reach the championship game in their respective sport for one of two reasons: firstly, they are the best team that year, or secondly, because they are the hottest team at that particular time. The Red may very well be both. Not only are they on a feverish run for the ages, but they very well could be the top team the United States has to offer this year.
The Red and Cavs swapped first chukker goals before the orange and blue built a 3-1 lead halfway through the first chukker.
“We then committed a few fouls, but they missed two open-goal penalty shots with the first chukker winding down. Their misses were gifts to us,” said head coach David Eldredge ’81. Virginia would soon regret delivering those party favors to the Red.
After receiving the big break, though, the Ithaca boys surrendered two more goals to put themselves in a 5-1 second-chukker hole. The Red scored the next four goals of the match to knot the score up at five apiece. Soon after their resurgence, though, the Red relaxed yet again and went into halftime down 11-6.
“Our guys went to sleep for the last three minutes of the half,” Eldredge said. During halftime, Eldredge woke his team up from their lapse in concentration.
“‘What are you doing? You’re standing there watching and expecting them to miss. They’re not going to give it to you. If you don’t play like you did during your four-goal second chukker stretch for the duration of the game, then you’re not going to win,’” Eldredge recalled from his speech.
The third chukker featured even play from both sides, and the Red got to within two goals of UVA on two occasions, but the Red committed a penalty near the end of the period, which enabled Virginia to secure a 13-10 lead after three chukkers.
“‘There is no tomorrow, so you better not leave anything in the tank,’” Eldredgee to his players before they mounted their horses for the fourth and final chukker. “‘You have to give it absolutely everything you have to make it to Saturday.’”
Juniors Bobby Harvey and Rich Weidel and freshman Max Constant were certainly listening to their coach in between chukkers, as evidenced by the five goal streak they spurred when they were down 14-11 to take the lead for the first time, 16-14.
“We went on that run because we got them into penalty trouble,” explained Eldredge. “We knew we could do it if we pinned them in their end and forced them to foul.”
The penalty shot attempts would have gone for naught, though, had Harvey not delivered on all of them except for one. Even more impressive, Harvey got his own rebound on his single miss and put it in between the pipes for one of his 11 goals of the game.
“Harvey was amazing on his penalty shots today,” Eldredge exclaimed.
The Red held a 16-14 advantage with one minute 50 seconds left in the contest. UVA scored a quick one to bring the Red’s edge down to one at 16-15 with one minute 10 seconds remaining.
“We kept it down in their zone and kept the pressure on, which is what we needed to do. We ate up the clock without fouling until it ran out. We came away with a great victory,” beamed Eldredge. “The last time that the Cornell men came back in the national semi-final from such a large deficit was also on April Fool’s Day, back in 1992. We were down seven goals that year against Colorado State after the first chukker and came back to win. We went on to win the national championship versus UVA that same year.”
Cornell’s opponent in Saturday night’s national championship game will be either No. 1 Texas A&M or No. 4 Westmont College.
For now, though, the Red will enjoy its latest victory in what has been a remarkable season.
“The other four times we played them didn’t matter. We beat them when it mattered,” said Constant, who delivered four goals in the game, in addition to Harvey’s 11 and one team pony goal. “We were down the whole game, until we clicked in the second half.”
“Constant and I didn’t show up until the third chukker,” said Harvey, “but we started playing together then and it started clicking.”
“Our transition game was on and we clicked well,” said Weidel.
Cornell clearly clicked, and Eldredge thinks much of the credit should go to Weidel, the greenest player on the team.
“Rich Weidel gets the kudos for this game. He’s a greenhorn and the most inexperienced player on the team, yet he carried us in the first half. He made several key defensive plays in those first two chukkers to keep us alive in the game until Harvey and Constant could get it going,” Eldredge said proudly.
“After losing to Westmont last year in the semi-final, I dedicated myself to helping get this team back here,” said Weidel. “I spent the summer in Ithaca with Coach Eldredge and his wife, Karen, taking care of the horses and training for polo. This has been a full year process for me, so I’m really excited that we’re in the title game.”
As if the team was not clicking enough, they will now have three full days in Kentucky to build more chemistry for the championship.
“We have our horses down here with us,” said Eldredge, “so we have to take care of them over the next week. Other than the horses and a few social events that are part of the tournament festivities, we’ll focus on getting ready for the championship.”
Harvey, Weidel and Constant surely feel at home in horse country and they’re hoping that come Saturday, with the help of their horses, they’ll be able to click clack their way to victory.