This is an example of how underprivileged kids are getting a chance to improve themselves through the sport of polo.
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The kids of Cowtown Work to Ride team are used to overcoming adversity. So, when its captain, Kareem Ropsner aged out and the team had to defend the national title with a new lineup, it adjusted, though not without a few bumps in the road.
The team is made up of kids that are part of Philadelphia's Work to Ride program, offering horse activities to the city's low income, at-risk youth. Equestrian activities, including polo, offer participants a healthy alternative to the drugs and crime prevalent in their neighborhoods. To take part in the program, kids have to agree to stay in school and out of trouble, keep their grades up and regularly help with barn chores.
Founder Lezlie Hiner not only teaches the kids to ride and care for horses, she offers emotional support and help with homework. The program has enriched the lives of many kids and offered them opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them. It has been featured in the national media a number of times. "This is my second home, and I need to be here if I want to be something in life," Kenshaun Walker, 15, told CNN's Sarah Hoye.
Rosser, who grew up in a neighborhood known as "The Bottom," started riding in the program when he was 8 and took up polo at the age of 9. He developed a love for horses and polo and spent the next decade refining his skills. Thanks to the program he received a scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy when he was in 8th grade. "I was always trying to find a way out and my way out was eventually finding a barn," said Kareem.
Last year he captained the Work to Ride team to a National Interscholastic Championship, the first all-black team to do so. Shortly after, he was named Interscholastic Player of the Year. A few months later, he graduated from Valley Forge, the first person in his family to graduate high school. He has since been named a member of Team USPA and is hoping to head to a university with a polo team in the fall. The handsome, athletic and well-spoken Kareem is a great success story and could be the p r o g r a m ' s poster child.
Kareem admits that without the program he would have dropped out and been a statistic of Philadelphia. He told CNN's Hoye, "I learned very fast ... you aren't going to do well in life, you aren't going to get anywhere if you only have a middle school education."
An older brother, Jabar, who once had an A polo rating, eventually dropped out of the Work to Ride program. Sadly, he was arrested for selling drugs and was jailed. His younger brother, Daymar, has followed in Kareem's footsteps, learning to ride at age 6, and enrolling in Valley Forge Military Academy. He was with Kareem on the winning interscholastic team along with friend Brandon Rease.
Getting to the National Interscholastic Championship was no easy task. When the Work to Ride kids first started playing years ago, they were also learning to ride, a difficult mix. Hiner gives the kids as much time in the saddle as possible, working on riding and equitation.
The program, located at the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Fairmount Park does not have a polo arena so the kids stick-andball when weather permits and ride outside, often when it is dark and cold in the winter. They also work on strokes on a wooden horse in the hay loft. In the summer they play on the grass.
"I have come to realize you need to start kids riding and playing early in order for them to develop the mental and physical skills necessary to understand the game and be a thinking, effective player," explained Hiner.
Aside from at-risk youth, Hiner also offers riding lessons to kids who can afford them. Julia Smith was drawn to the barn by a love of horses, and eventually began to love polo just as much. A private school student, Smith enjoyed hanging around the barn and tagging along at horse shows. Though she comes from a much different background than the other Work to Ride kids, they all have a love of horses and polo in common and that is all that matters to them.
Smith started riding with Hiner when she was 8 and soon switched from riding hunters to playing polo. She eventually went on to play for the Brandywine and Maryland girls' teams before finding her way back to Cowtown Work to Ride. When Kareem graduated, Smith was brought on to fill his spot on the team.
"It was a new experience for Brandon and Daymar to play without Kareem. Kareem was such a good captain, there was definitely a void. ... This year was a challenge because Julia hadn't played for me for quite a few years. It was an adjustment for her and the boys because they had never played together before," said Hiner. "We don't have an indoor arena and Daymar was away at Valley Forge so we weren't able to practice in an arena together. Our games were our practices.
"I tried putting the kids in different positions to try and balance it out but things just weren't gelling. In the end I just had the kids play the position they were most comfortable with and hoped for the best."
Despite the difficulties, the team qualified for the national championship played at the Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia from March 8-11.
In Game 1, the wildcard Poway edged Midland 19-18, before Eldorado ousted Toronto 22-13. Cowtown then took on Poway. Cowtown trailed by a goal after the first half. The team caught up and took the lead in the third. A strong and balanced fourth gave Cowtown the 19-15 win and advanced it to the final against Eldorado. Daymar lead with 10 goals, followed by Smith's six.
Smith was one of only two girls playing in the Open tournament, but that didn't deter her. She showed great confidence and carried her team through the semifinal.
"The boys couldn't get it together, for whatever reason. Julia dominated and made up for the boys' disorganization. It was the first game all season they really started to play as a team instead of as individuals," explained Hiner.
Eldorado was led by the 6-foot-6-inch Daniel "Cacho" Galindo, who I/I chair Duncan Huyler described as an awesome rider and beautiful polo player. "He was smooth as silk," said Huyler.
Work to Ride's Brandon Rease and Daymar Rosser scored three of the first four goals but Galindo had the answer and put Eldorado on top 5-3 when the dust from the first period had settled.
Galindo had four more goals in the second, added to a pony goal while Daymar and Smith had one each and Rease had two penalty conversions. Eldorado held a 10-7 halftime lead.
Both California teams we played had some great players and they managed to shut down Daymar. Eldorado managed to shut down our running game for the most part and they led for most of the game," said Hiner. "At one point we were behind by four and I was pretty worried."
Daymar was finally able to break free in the third, knocking in four goals while Rease added one and a pony kicked one in. At the same time, they managed to hold Galindo to just two goals, but Galindo's teammates took up the slack, scoring one each added to a Penalty 1.
Work to Ride entered the last period down by two. Scott Cunningham made it three, but a pair of goals by Daymar and one from Smith tied the score at 16-16. It was a tense seven and a half minutes. "You could have cut the tension with a knife. It was incredible," said Hiner. Galindo's penalty conversion put Eldorado back on top but Rease soon tied it up. Daymar put Work to Ride ahead but another penalty in the final minute gave Galindo the opportunity he needed to tie it up again, and he did. Both teams dug in their heels to find the goal but time expired, forcing a penalty shoot out.
Each player takes a turn shooting at goal from the 25-yard line. First team to shoot is decided by a coin toss. The teams alternate taking shots. The first four players missed, then Galindo managed to score for Eldorado. Rease, who had struggled a bit in the tournament, shot and scored. Still tied, they would have to do it again. Again, the first four players missed. With what must have felt like the weight of the world on his shoulders, Rease stepped up and scored again. Eldorado had the last shot but it went wide. As the only player able to reach the goal, Rease had clinched the win for Work to Ride.
"Given the tie score there could have been a lot of griping about close calls, etc. The sportsmanship amongst the players, families and coaches was inspiring," said Huyler. "The Cowtown [Work to Ride] team was so well schooled, especially considering they practice outdoors in the Northeast winters and cannot host games. Lezlie, of course, is a saint. She has done so much for these kids and the sport as well."
"The final game was especially important for Brandon," explained Hiner. "He was not playing up to his ability in the tournament but all that insecurity disappeared when he scored the winning penalty shots."
The team had risen to the top of a record 42 teams competing this year. In addition, Julia Smith and Daymar Rosser were named to the All-Star team, along with Daniel Galindo and Midland's Russell Stimmel. Midland's Steven Hagist received a sportsmanship award. All the horses were provided by the University of Virginia. Toldy was named Best Playing Pony and he and the rest of the Virginia 2 string were named Best String.
"This year's win was actually more emotional than last year, especially in the manner in which we won. ... I knew they could do it but I don't know that they were as confident. They had the skills and it was just a matter of them stepping up to the plate. It was a good feeling to have people strategizing on how to beat us," said Hiner.
Though Kareem wasn't able to play with the team, he did help coach and was pleased when it won. He jumped into the arena to congratulate the players as soon as the game was over. "It's an incredible moment and I'm happy they are sharing their moment with me," Kareem said after the win. "As much as I watch myself do well, I am even happier to see [Daymar] do better."
For Smith, it was her last chance for an interscholastic win and it was an experience of a lifetime. "These kids are like my brothers," Smith told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Phil Anastasia. "We're going to be friends forever." With Smith graduating from the Baldwin School, the Work to Ride team will once again reorganize.
"Sometimes it is tough to put teams together. I try to plan my teams years in advance but we always seem to have some kids that might screw up with their grades or drop out of the program and I have to rework the agenda and reassemble players," explained Hiner.
Her prospects for next year's team look bright. Daymar and Brandon will both be juniors so they have two more years with the team, and Kenshaun Walker, this year's alternate, will move up to join them on the varsity team.
"Kenshaun is an awesome, athletic player. He can play both sides of the horse very well," explained Hiner. "It will just be a matter of him learning to follow the direction of his teammates and picking up the finer points of arena polo strategy. He listens well and is always keen to learn.
"I have a couple of 12-year-olds that just need some more playing time. We are pretty sure the polo program at Valley Forge Military Academy will be up and running this fall so having an arena to practice in will be a big boost for the team.
"We have not been able to practice in a real arena for three years so we are really excited. I have always wondered how much better the kids would be if we had a real arena to practice in."
In addition to the matches, organized by I/I director Kim Syme and Amy Wisehart, a dinner is held to celebrate the tournament. This year former I/I chairman Russ Sheldon was honored at the dinner for his over 15 years of service to the program. Now in its 42nd year, the program is beginning to see second generation players competing.
For the Work to Ride kids, polo has been a welcome distraction from the mean streets of Philadelphia. For polo, these kids are an example of great talent, sportsmanship and desire, and have been a welcome addition to the interscholastic program. With an arena to practice in one can only imagine how much better they will be in the coming years.