A pack of Koyotes from Canada will be invading Western Massachusetts on Halloween, but the UMass polo team isn’t scared.
That’s the Kemptville Koyotes, a polo team from Ontario that UMass will be hosting in a game this afternoon at Stone Pony Farm in Leverett. UMass coach Hilary Mroz-Blythe said she believes the Koyotes are a relatively new and inexperienced team and she is hoping for a victory.
“I’m sort of banking on it being an easy team,” said Mroz-Blythe before a practice match on a sunny afternoon last Sunday at her family-owned Leverett stable. Though, she added, “I never like to predict winning because so much of it’s out of my control.”
Varsity players Amy Dolan, a senior, Tanya Chesnell and Elise McHugh, both juniors, will start for UMass in today’s match. Mroz-Blythe also plans to rotate in junior varsity players Heather Sliney, a senior, and Mindy Lucas, a junior, depending on how the match goes. Normally, only the three varsity players compete, but Mroz-Blythe said, “I don’t think [the Koyotes are] all that strong, so we’re gonna let some of the other kids play as well.”
It remains to be seen if UMass has underestimated the Canadian team’s ability. The Koyotes, part of the University of Guelph – Kemptville Campus in Ontario, became Canada’s first intercollegiate polo team in September 2008, according to a press release published in the Kemptville EMC newspaper. Though the team may be relatively new, its varsity players have been practicing at the Augusta Polo Club three days a week in preparation for the season, according to coach George Bezak.
“They have been working very hard this year and I think that if they play as a team and communicate with each other, score their penalties, play good defense, they should be competitive,” wrote Bezak in an email response.
Bezak continued, “I saw UMass play last year and they had a very good team so it will be a good game. This being the team’s second scheduled game of the season, it is very difficult to predict the outcome but I think that if they are able to score their penalty shots and keep their own penalties to a minimum, we stand a good chance at getting a win.”
The UMass team was formed in 2001 and its players typically practice twice a week. McHugh, Chesnell, and Dolan, who will be starting in today’s match, have all been with the team since their freshman year. UMass coach Mroz-Blythe said that the three varsity players work well together. “They trust each other and they talk a lot,” said Mroz-Blythe. “On the other side of it, they aren’t always able to execute what they want to do, but the fact that they talk and they’re able to change up when things don’t go quite right is good.”
The coach further stated, “Their weaknesses are weaknesses that the whole team has and their strengths are strengths that the whole team has … they communicate well and they rotate well … but they don’t always know what the best offensive play is and you learn that by playing people better and faster than you.” To help the players learn, Mroz-Blythe brought in other equestrians for Sunday’s practice, including her stepfather, Dennis Fitzpatrick, her friend Sandy Smith of Warren, and also Mimi Booth of Pelham, and Maureen Maher-Patenaude of Sunderland, both of whom were on a high school team coached by Mroz-Blythe. Collette McHugh, Elise’s mother, also played during the practice.
“It’s always good to try and play people you don’t play normally so that you get to think outside the box,” said Mroz-Blythe in describing how the team can avoid relying too heavily on a single strategy.
As they cleaned the horses’ tack after Sunday’s practice, the varsity players expressed a positive attitude about the upcoming match against the Koyotes. “We feel really excited,” said McHugh, a sentiment that was echoed by Chesnell and Dolan.
“We’re really excited about it being a Halloween-themed game,” added Dolan. The girls headed to practice with orange paint stains on their hands from special Halloween-decorated jerseys that they had created earlier in the day.
So far this season, the UMass team has played three matches, winning its first one against Yale University and losing the next two to Harvard University and Cornell University. The Yale match was a home game for UMass. In describing UMass’ first victory of the season, Mroz-Blythe pointed out that the Yale team had not ridden since December and that the UMass players were able to ride horses they were used to, within the comfort zone of their own familiar arena. “It’s hard to go to someone else’s house and ride their horses and ride them well,” she said in regards to the loss against Harvard.
As for the third match against Cornell, “we weren’t surprised by the loss at all,” said coach Mroz-Blythe, adding that Cornell is “pretty much the best team in the nation.” Dolan broke a toe during the Cornell match on Oct. 17, but both she and her coach expect that she will still play in at least part of tomorrow’s game. Dolan has been wearing a special boot as her toe heals and was scheduled for a follow-up X-ray yesterday. Though, as of Thursday, Dolan said “I’m definitely going to play” in Saturday’s match.
UMass will once again have the home team advantage today as it takes on the Canadian team. The girls will ride the same horses they’ve been riding during practices. Mroz-Blythe and her stepfather own the horses.
The Koyotes will face UMass in what will be only the Koyote’s second game of the season, after its first game last night against Vassar College. In its first season, the Koyotes lost all of its competitions, including matches against both Vassar and Harvard.
“However,” wrote coach Bezak, “I felt that the team did extremely well for being a first year team and they played safe, keeping penalties to a minimum. So overall it was a big success for the team and school.”
Further reflecting on her play during Sunday’s practice and looking ahead to the upcoming match against the Koyotes, Chesnell said, “I feel confident.” Though, she added, “I’ve got to step it up for the game.” Dolan said she and the other players need to work on “playing offensively instead of just defensively” in terms of talking, passing, and aiming. The three varsity players further stated in agreement their need to focus on taking the ball where they want it to go to make for what they called “polo with a purpose.” Dolan also joked, “I hope I don’t break my toe again.”
The match today starts at 2 p.m. at Stone Pony Farm. The farm is located at 147 Long Plain Road in Leverett, just over 3.5 miles north of the UMass campus. Spectators are welcome.