Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Hedley
When the Roger Williams University men’s polo team won their first ever national championship in the program’s young two-year history last Saturday, nobody had realized what just happened.
“I didn’t even know we won until everyone started screaming and cheering,” said Daymar Rosser, a junior on the team. “In the moment it just felt like winning a game, until the next day we all realized we were national champions and all the emotions kicked in.”
Sophomore player George Hempt could also vouch for that.
“I didn’t know we won until I heard my teammate [Pedro Cabrera’s] burst of enthusiasm from across the arena,” he said.
Once the euphoria of the championship-clinching moment had ended, everyone knew only one thing: This was for real.
Roger Williams held off Southern Methodist University 12-11 in the national title game last Saturday afternoon, April 8, in only their second year of the program’s history.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, polo is a team game played on horseback with players attempting to drive a small plastic or wooden ball into a team’s opposing goal using a long-handled mallet or club. It can be played in an open field or within an arena, and only three players and their horses are necessary for both sides.
Hempt, who’s mounted more than a few horses in his short lifespan, described it differently.
“Some describe polo as hockey on horseback, but that really only captures the physicality of the game,” he said. “I like to think of it more as trying to play golf, during an earthquake, with clubs that are over 50 inches long.”
The Hawks were one of six teams to compete in the United States Polo Association Intercollegiate National Championship Tournament last week from April 3-8; held a not-too-far 3,000 miles away from Bristol, Rhode Island in Santa Barbara, California.
The Hawks’ three-man squad entered the tourney as the No. 2 seed, receiving a first round bye before defeating Ivy League school Cornell University 10-8 last Thursday, April 6 to advance to the final round.
In the final bout, Roger Williams was met by No. 1 seed Southern Methodist University. Going up against a team that boasts mustangs as their mascot could give the impression a simple polo match was bound to go in their favor, right?
While SMU did have riding skills along with the applicable logo, RWU had some experienced guys mounting their horses as well.
Hempt claims he is a fifth generation polo player who was “born into” the sport. Cabrera is from the Dominican Republic, one of 18 countries where polo is played professionally. Rosser however, unlike his teammates, didn’t have a polo background embedded into the roots of his family history. His love for this game played atop the backs of stallions began from much more personal relationship—a bond between brothers.
“I was exposed to horses by three older brothers when they discovered a program call Work to Ride in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “WTR is a non-profit organization that helps inner-city kids get a better life. After my first day around the horses I knew this was the sport I wanted to do forever.”
With history and experience on their side, the Hawks got out to a good start in the title game, taking a 3-2 lead in the first chukka. However, SMU was a tough group to shake off, knotted it up at 4-4 by the end of the first session.
At the end of the second chukka, neither team could cover any ground as the match remained tied 7-7.
In the third chukka, RWU scored three unanswered goals to take a 10-7 lead into the fourth, but SMU fought back to eventually tie that game at 11-11 forcing a shootout.
Cabrera was the first Hawk to capitalize in the shootout after SMU tallied two consecutive misses. Having to score, Southern Methodist stayed alive by punching a goal home. With a chance to win, RWU missed and the shootout went to an extra round.
Rosser then nailed the first shot of the second shootout for the Hawks while SMU missed. The two teams alternated missed shots before SMU knocked in a goal to tie things up again. With one shot left for the Hawks in this round to potentially take the championship crown home, all eyes were on Hempt.
“Deep breaths,” Hempt said on what he was doing in the moments before the clinching goal. “I missed more penalty shots than I usually do in that game so I was just trying to clear my head of those mistakes and focus on the fundamentals.”
Hempt made the shot to put the Hawks up one and SMU couldn’t match, sending RWU’s season into the history books.
“It’s a great feeling to be an intercollegiate champion and it’s a big accomplishment for all of us,” Rosser said.
Head coach Ted Torrey was at the helm of the team’s unprecedented run, saying the title was possible from the very beginning and it was their outright goal before the season started.
“Yeah, [winning a national title] was the goal… nationally, we were a force to be reckoned with all year long,” he said.
Hempt was also in agreeance with his coach.
“I knew as soon as I started playing alongside Pedro and Daymar as a freshman [that] a national championship was in our reach,” Hempt said. “I knew from day one after seeing the enthusiasm these two boys displayed in addition to the tremendous support from our coach and athletic department, we were destined for success.”
Perhaps next year too the team will be destined for success, as the Hawks’ entire roster will be returning next season.