WELLINGTON, Florida - Coca-Cola won its third 20-goal Herbie Pennell Cup on Sunday, defeating Villa del Lago 15-14 in the first high-goal tournament of the 2016 season at the International Polo Club Palm Beach. Hilario Ulloa was named most valuable player (MVP). Gillian Johnston's mount, Tinsel, was selected as best-playing pony (BPP).
Gillian Johnston 2
Sugar Erskine 7
Julio Arellano 8
Steve Krueger 3
Villa del Lago:
James Zenni 0
Augustin Obregon 5
Hilario Ulloa 9
Guille Aguero 6
With a laser-accurate cut shot in the last seconds of regulation play, Johnston put the kibosh on what had appeared to be an overtime showdown in the works. On the final play, with the score tied at 14, Coca-Cola won the throw-in. Steve Krueger snagged the ball and hit it to Johnston, who was strategically positioned for the pickup. She took the ball on the near side and stampeded toward the end line. Suddenly, at an incredibly sharp angle from the side, Johnston pulled off what should have been impossible for anyone but Houdini. At about 15 yards out she cut the ball through a pack of horses, and in it went through the uprights at high velocity, like a paperclip being mercilessly pulled by a gigantic magnet.
The players were as unabashedly gob smacked as the spectators. "That shot was just amazing," said Julio Arellano. "I mean, that's a Cambiaso! That's something you would see Carlos Gracida make, Cambiaso make, to win a game."
Johnston strode in from the field alone, wearing the satisfied but controlled expression of a soldier who knew she had done her job. Sugar Erskine was excited enough for both of them, almost dancing his way back to the tent. Still, he was realistic. "Sometimes you need a little luck," he said with a laugh, giving a nod to Sebastian Merlos as he walked by.
"I think Sebastian said the same thing: 'You're very lucky that you guys came back!'" said Erskine in a stage whisper. (Without breaking stride, quipped, "The more you practice, the better your luck gets.")
A megadose of luck was just what the doctor ordered at the close of the third chukker, with Coca-Cola trailing by five points (9-4). After a serious halftime powwow, Erskine came out gunning. He cut a sharp corner, charged past Guille Aguero and scored before anyone could react.
The fourth turned out to be an uncharacteristically low-scoring chukker for Villa del Lago, which earned only one goal. It was also the only chukker in which Ulloa was scoreless.
After some extended full-throttle play, Aguero closed in. He tapped the ball and carried it forward on his own as patron James Zenni, in a slick series of moves, took out Arellano and kept him from jumping back onto the defense. Aguero made a clean dash for goal and scored, bringing Villa del Lago to a 10-5 lead.
Coca-Cola regrouped and spurred itself into a scoring frenzy, making four consecutive goals before its opponent could answer. (As Erskine said after the game, "We thought we had it organized, and we were trying to stop Hilario. It didn't work.") A midgame strategy shift paid off for Coca-Cola. Just as it had done last week in the playoff against Enigma, the red team played like a well-oiled machine in the second half. A fourth-period goal resulted from a three-way play initiated by Arellano. He passed the ball to Krueger, who handed it off to Erskine. Just as the ball threatened to get away, Erskine sent it back to Krueger, who jumped on the new line and scored on a neck shot.
A 3-goaler, Krueger is a newcomer to this year's Coca-Cola squad. He has wasted no time proving his mettle, scoring five goals in the final. "I'm just trying to get in the swing of things," he said. "It's the first time that I've played this level of polo. It's a lot of fun-there's nothing like it."
Coca-Cola came from behind to tie the final at 11 in the fifth chukker. Arellano supplied a major dose of firepower with six goals in the game, one of them in the fifth in a blazing show of teamwork. He hit a back shot to Erskine, who broke free and passed the ball to Johnston. Ulloa, who made it his mission in life to jam the Coke machine, snatched the ball for a heartbeat. Arellano reclaimed it, fended off two white jerseys and scored.
On a pickup from the bowl-in, Erskine dashed off with the ball and cut another corner (which is becoming one of his trademark moves) to make his second goal of the day. Erskine was also hot on the defense, impeding Ulloa's control of the ball in a series of mach-nine ride offs and making a last-gasp save on the threshold as Ulloa's shot headed toward goal. It was a rare miss for Ulloa, who scored 10 goals total in the final, as he did last month at the 122nd Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo HSBC (Argentine Open). He was recently elevated to a 10 handicap in Argentina.
With 3:22 left on the clock, Villa del Lago was up two points (14-12). Goals by Arellano and Krueger tied it up, and then Johnston ended the conversation one up for Coca-Cola in the final seconds of play.
"Hilario started on fire. He played great," said Arellano. "I had a hard time figuring out what to do with him the first half. I missed two easy goals in the second chukker and also missed stopping one that I should have, so that was a big reason why we were losing. Then in the second half we got momentum, and then they got some momentum back. We were able to put the shots in, and I hate to put it this way, but we got lucky."
Krueger praised his opponents. "Villa is a great team," he said. "Hilario came off with a really good season in Argentina. He was just on fire, and those other two guys (Agustin Obregon and Aguero) were doing a really good job thinking for him. You can't take away from those guys; they were two really good players. It was just a hard game."
The 20-goal Joe Barry Memorial Cup tournament opens Saturday, Jan. 9. In the 3 p.m. featured match, Coca-Cola faces off against Tonkawa. La Indiana, a new team at IPC, plays Enigma, which returns for its second Florida season, at 1 p.m.