At the beginning of the academic year, nine University of Richmond students -- seven women and two men -- joined the newly formed polo club.
Since then, they have had to learn the rules of the game from scratch, spend every Saturday traveling to Charlottesville, Va., for four- to five-hour practices and meet for weekly strategy planning sessions.
"It's a game that is not for the faint of heart," said Lorenza Marcin, the polo club's faculty adviser.
And although the team lost during its first tournament of the season last Saturday, sophomore Bailey Smith, polo club president, was not deterred.
"It was a great experience," Smith said of the first match. "It was everyone's first game, and I was very happy with how we played."
Indeed, when Smith created the club and recruited members earlier this school year, she was the only one on the team who had ever played polo before. And even though she had only planned on accepting people who were strong riders, when two inexperienced Richmond College students expressed an interest, she decided to let them join.
"It's been hard," Smith said, "but they've done an amazing job."
Smith has been playing polo since she was 11 years old, and continued playing the sport in high school. When she arrived at Richmond, she joined the equestrian team, but missed the sport. She wanted to start a team, but was not sure where to begin. Then, during summer break, Smith played in Iowa at the Des Moines Polo Club and had the chance to talk to Charles Weaver, president of the United States Polo Association. He suggested that she just start somewhere, so she made a Facebook group and invited students she knew from the equestrian team.
Forming a club took many steps, Smith said. First she had to establish the club with the USPA, then with the university. After a one-year period the club will become official. Smith needed a faculty sponsor for the sport, so she approached Marcin, her Italian professor.
Marcin's role includes signing off on checks, making sure the team has necessary paper work, keeping up mailing lists and providing support. She tries to go watch the team practice each week and watch its games. Although she did not have any knowledge of the sport beforehand, she said she had since learned a lot.
"I love it," she said. "The only knowledge I had of polo is what I saw on TV. I didn't realize how much preparation and work went into it."
At each practice she goes to, Marcin takes pictures and video for the team so members can watch it during their strategy meetings and learn from their performances.
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The team started practicing in September at the Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, starting with a crash course in basic polo taught by University of Virginia polo coach Lou Lopez.
Smith said it was impressive to see a group of people who had never played polo before change into a functioning team during one semester.
Senior Stephanie Toth was on the Richmond equestrian team but wanted something different for her senior year. When Smith told her about the polo team, she found her answer.
"When else are you going to be able to play?" Toth said about the rareness of having the sport at Richmond. She said she knew that once she graduated she would likely not get this opportunity again.
"I wish I were a freshman," she said.
At first it was hard for Toth to learn the skills needed for polo, such as using the mallet, learning how to keep the horse at a gallop for the entire match and staying on the horse.
"Bailey helped a lot," Toth said. "She is really passionate about the sport."
Although the drive to Charlottesville each week for practice requires a time commitment, Toth was unfazed. "U.Va. has some of the best facilities in the country," she said. "We're lucky that it is so close."
The team pays more than $5,000 per semester for the club, which is split by all of the members. Use of the Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Va., which provides the playing space and horses for the team, constitutes the greatest portion of the fees at $3,600, with smaller expenses for membership and tournament dues. First-time players also needed to buy around $1,000 worth of equipment.
"The team is an extreme financial commitment," Smith said, but added that she hoped to offset these costs for next year. She said direcor of student activities Max Vest was trying to secure funding from the club sports budget for the team.
Smith said she didn't want the costs deterring students who might be interested in the sport.
"Next year we will get club status and hopefully significant funding, so these numbers only apply to this year. We are very much interested in new players," she said.
Because the team plays arena polo through the United States Polo Association Intercollegiate Circuit, the matches are slightly different from outdoor polo. Arena polo is played with three players per team instead of four, on a smaller field with higher sides, with a different ball and with fewer chukkers (periods). Players switch horses after each chukker in arena polo, so 12 horses are needed - four chukkers per game, played by three players.
For Smith, polo is the best of both worlds because it combines the individuality of horseback riding with the team-centered, high-speed contact sport.
"I'm obsessed with polo!" Smith said. She said she planned to keep the club running as long as she would be at Richmond and also thought it would continue once she had left.
Currently, polo practices are co-ed, but the official polo games are not. This means that the two men on the team cannot officially compete until they get a third player. For now, Smith plays with them for matches, but the results cannot be officially counted.
Freshman Carlo Villa, one of the team's two male members, said not having enough male teammates could be frustrating.
"Although we still get the same amount of practice as the girls, it can be a good and a bad thing," he said. "We may probably not be ready to play a number of schools, or we may improve our polo if we had the opportunity to play other schools."
For Toth, the team's goal has been to get a feel for the sport.
"We have a smaller group and really get to know people well," she said.
Toth said that the team's first match was a bit last-minute.
"We had [it] kind of thrown on us," she said. But even though the team lost, she said she thought it had helped to settle its nerves, prepare it for the next one and give a better idea for how the game really works.
In the future, Smith said she would like to organize a fan bus that would allow Richmond students the opportunity to cheer on the team without making the drive themselves.
"There are always lots of U.Va. spectators," she said. "It is hard to have no one there."
She also made note of the hats and T-shirts available in the Richmond bookstore.
Toth said she would like to see more fans as well.
"It is such a unique sport," she said. "Even if you don't understand the sport, it's still very fun to watch."
The polo team will compete in matches on Feb. 21 at the Polo center and competed yesterday, Feb. 18, against U.Va.
Contact staff writer Jill Calvaliere at email@example.com
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