Girls polo team making strides Beating boys teams: Garrison Forest players like to show their 'macho' opponents that they can be as tough as they are.

April 14, 1996|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

When Anne Downey's horse thunders across the polo arena bumping a burly military school cadet out of the way of the ball, she never considers herself at a disadvantage because she's a girl.

Neither do her Garrison Forest teammates Melissa Riggs, Suzanna Lott and Carly Busta. Together they form the top high school girls polo team in the country, five-time national champs.

To keep their edge in a season that runs from September to May, the Garrison girls play just about every team within a day's drive -- high school, college or club; men's, women's or coed. Of course, they get the biggest kick out of beating the guys.

"We're going to show them that we're just as tough as they are, if not tougher, in the sport," said Downey, the team's only senior. "They have this macho thing going. One guy threw his mallet when we beat them. Culver [Military Academy in Indiana] is a coed school, and they didn't tell their girls that they lost to us."

But beating the guys is more than just a teen-age battle-of-the-sexes victory. It's the only way the Garrison girls can reach their ultimate goal -- winning the U.S. Polo Association's National Interscholastic Tournament.

That tournament includes men's and coed teams as well as the women's tournament winner. In March, Garrison became the first all-female team to reach the final after edging Culver, 15-14, in overtime. In the title game, however, they ran up against a more experienced Shallowbrook Polo Club of Connecticut and fell, 20-7.

Although polo, played indoors with three on a side, features a lot of bumping between horses and players, the rider's control and decision making loom larger than the physical size of the rider.

"As long as you can ride well, you can overcome the size difference," said Busta, who is 5 feet 5, 105 pounds.

Garrison coach Cindy Halle, 5-6 and 120 pounds, is one of the country's highest-rated woman players. She started on three national collegiate champion teams while at the University of California, Davis.

"It's a thinking man's game," said Halle. "You have to read the play before it happens. You have this 1,000-pound animal and you have to be there before the ball's there."

The players prefer the "men's" tournament, not because it gives them a chance to beat the guys, but because it is so much more competitive. In the women's tournament, Garrison won its semifinal, 29-5, and beat the Radnor (Pa.) Pony Club, 19-4, in the final at Cornell University on Feb. 18.

"When I first came here, we always played guys teams and you'd go to nationals and get beat 20-3 or something," said Halle, Garrison's coach for 10 years. "You'd get a consolation game, but it was really hard to have something to aim for. You could play the game of your life and not really do well.

"Now, I'm looking back and thinking, have my teams gotten that much better or has the men's competition been watered down a little bit? I don't know the answer to that.

"I do know this year's team is the most balanced team I've ever had. There was no weak point."

The coaches reflected that by selecting Riggs, Lott and Downey the National All-Star Team and Busta to the alternate team.

The honors also rewarded how well they play together. With no substitutions allowed in each 7 1/2 -minute chukker (quarter), their teamwork is perhaps more important than their individual skills.

"They're my best friends in school," said Lott. "The team is so small and we go on so many trips together that you get to know each other so well. That really helps when you play."

All four girls would like to play polo in college and if they do, they would continue quite a string. This year's women's college final four included three Garrison Forest graduates -- Sara Gompf, a Cornell freshman; Alicia Wells, a Connecticut sophomore; and Barbara Frost, a Virginia senior.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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