Tell The History Of Now
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BURGERT: COVID-19 ended an otherwise successful season for Virginia Polo

Though they were on track to compete at the National Intercollegiate Championships, COVID-19 derailed the teams' hopes for the semester

<p>Members of Virgina Polo pose at the Southeastern Regionals with Best Playing Ponies Dumptruck, Viuda and Gaucha. &nbsp;</p>

Members of Virgina Polo pose at the Southeastern Regionals with Best Playing Ponies Dumptruck, Viuda and Gaucha.  

I was 13 when I saw my first collegiate polo match. I had only recently begun playing the sport and still had my reservations about a game so different from anything I had played in the past, but that match changed everything. It was the women’s semi-finals — Virginia against Cornell — and I had never seen anything like it. The women scored from the middle of the arena and played with more intensity than I had ever witnessed — from that day, I was determined to play on the Virginia women’s polo team.

This year, the women’s team was ready to assert itself as the new powerhouse in women’s collegiate polo — we were set to enter the National Intercollegiate Championships undefeated with multiple tournament titles to our name. I was fortunate enough to have spent the season playing alongside the best teammates I could have ever asked for — sophomore team captain Maddie Grant, freshman Katie Define and senior Demitra Hajimihalis. It was a dream to be able to play with such incredible teammates, and we all wanted to help Hajimihalis win the national title she deserved in her final season. 

Hajimihalis’ collegiate polo career began with UConn’s women's team in 2015, though she transferred to PVCC for her sophomore year in hopes of eventually transferring to U.Va. She began playing with the Virginia women's team during practices and became a part of the community — since then, Hajimihalis has been a constant figure at Virginia Polo. She keeps an eye on all 60 horses and all 36 club members, ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks. Hajimihalis has won all-star awards, Best Playing Pony awards, regional titles and Horsemanship awards across her career. She has played in the USPA's International Intercollegiate Challenge Cup and has received recognition at the highest collegiate level for her work with the horses at Virginia Polo. The only thing missing is a national championship.

"Demi is an extremely talented and supportive teammate,” Grant said. “Her passion for the horses and optimistic perspective is something we all strive for. Her hard work and dedication is visible both in her playing and her leadership as two-term president of Virginia Polo.”

The men had a similarly spectacular season — they also went undefeated with a closest margin of victory of 10 goals. Sophomores Jack McLean, Brennan Wells and Ignacio Viana looked to redeem themselves after last year’s heartbreaking loss in the national finals to Texas A&M after an undefeated season. With the addition of freshman Parker Pearce, the men had an even more impressive season this year. In the fall, the men won the Bill Field's Tournament against Cornell with a score of 29-10. Additionally, they beat regional competition Kentucky 35-6 in the Southeast Regional Finals. 

Just before spring break, both squads played in the Southeast Regional Tournament and claimed spots as No. 1 seeds in the National Intercollegiate Championships. Virginia was to host the tournament in early April, and we had spent months preparing ourselves and our horses for the tournament. We felt confident and ready.

For a few days, even a week after the University decided to cancel classes, we remained optimistic that nationals would take place. The five-day tournament was just a few weeks away and polo is a small enough sport that we thought to ourselves, “There aren’t that many people involved, right?” However, as the country came to a halt and Charlottesville shut down around us, it was no real surprise when we got the notification from the USPA that National Intercollegiate Championships were postponed until further notice.

It was heartbreaking for everyone. For the men, it was a further deferral of their chance at redemption. For the girls, it was a further deferral of their chance at a national title together.

“It was devastating for the teams to have nationals canceled,” said Jessica Schmitt, barn manager and Virginia Polo alumna. “They worked really hard all year, the horses were fit and ready and the facilities have never looked better.”

The USPA has since announced that nationals will take place at a later date. It was also announced that players who graduate or transfer next year will be able to play on the team that they had qualified for nationals with this past 2019-2020 season.

For us, that means that Hajimihalis will get a chance at her national title, despite graduating in the spring. Luckily, Hajimihalis plans to stay in Charlottesville. After graduation, she will begin working for fellow local polo player, Andrew Baldwin, at CORE Real Estate. She will be close enough to continue practicing with us, and we could not be more ecstatic to have her around for a bit longer. 

“I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year despite nationals being postponed,” Hajimihalis said. “Everyone worked so hard off and, on the field, and I look forward to being able to play nationals with my amazing teammates in the future.”

While it may have been devastating to turn out the horses for a premature vacation and leave Charlottesville behind for our respective homes so far away from our teammates — humans and horses — we all anxiously await the tournament’s rescheduling. The future remains unclear in this uncertain time, but one thing is certain — when nationals finally do come around, the men and women of Virginia Polo will be ready.