Women's polo team repeats as national champs (Released: 5/2/97)
by Renu Sehgal, Office of University Communications.STORRS, Conn. -- The University of Connecticut women's polo team has won the national championship for the second consecutive year.
"It's good to win. I'm very proud of the team. They overcame a lot of difficulties this year," said Jim Dinger, UConn's coach for the past 11 years. "We have three of the top players in the country -- they're at another level, like our women's basketball team."
The championship game, a 17-11 victory over Cornell, was held on April 12 at the Brushy Creek Ranch in Burleson, Texas, capping an eventful season for the Huskies. Not only does the team have inadequate facilities, but also all three starters suffered major physical setbacks, threatening to derail the defending champions' quest for another title.
Kim Morgan, a junior animal science major from SPRINGFIELD, Mass., was involved in a car accident early in the season that kept her off the field for a month. Meg Dinger, a senior animal science major from WILLINTON and the coach's daughter, injured her shoulder and was unable to play for three months. Alicia Wells, a junior renewable natural resources major from SYKESVILLE, Md., became ill three weeks before the national tournament and was unable to practice until the week before the tournament.
Fortunately for the Huskies, transfer Jen Freed came in to help the team finish the season successfully. Freed, a junior animal science/ resource economics major from SHERMAN, left Cornell to join UConn. The team finished with a 13-2 regular season record, 16-4 overall.
The 1996-97 season was strangely similar to last season, Dinger said. UConn dominated every team it faced until losing to Cornell in the John Ben Snow Tournament by one goal in the last 16 seconds. Without Meg Dinger, UConn faced Cornell again in the eastern regional finals, losing by one goal in overtime. UConn gained entrance into the final four as a wildcard. But UConn's two All-Americans, Dinger and Wells, were not at full strength.
In the national tournament, UConn defeated Virginia, the southeast regional champions, 19-10. In the other national semi-final, Cornell beat Stanford to face off for a fifth and final time this season against UConn.
In ceremonies after the game, Wells and Dinger were elected members of the 1997 National All- American Women's Polo Team, receiving the first and second highest vote totals, respectively. Both of them and Morgan were named to the All East Women's Polo Team. Dinger was the high scorer during the tournament with 15 goals.
The polo program at UConn is entirely funded through the Department of Animal Science, gifts from the student government and donations. Students are charged $150 a semester to participate in the polo and equestrian programs to offset some costs.
The program is trying to raise money for a new indoor arena. So far, the team has raised $500,000 of the needed $3 million.
The University's polo program began in 1969, organized by Hal Vita. The men's team won the national title in 1972, 1973 and 1974. The women's tournament began in 1976. Prior to 1995, when the UConn women won the reserve national championship, the team's best showing was third place in 1985.
The program is known as a "blue-collar" program because students have always been involved in the hands-on care of the polo horses and facilities. The outdoor polo arena, built in the early 1970s, was constructed mainly with student and faculty labor.
For many years, the students cared for the horses and did all the manual work. Now, student labor takes care of routine feeding and stall cleaning, but the team members still exercise and care for the polo horses and the arena. Varsity team members help teach the instructional polo classes offered to non-varsity and new members each semester. The program offers a high school summer polo program, intended to help to recruit players for the team.
The University competes against Cornell, Skidmore, Yale and Harvard in the eastern regional conference. There are three other regions in the country, with 20 schools competing nationwide.
"People say they play polo, so they must be millionaires, but that's not the case," Jim Dinger said.
The team had to pay its own way to the tournament this year, including transportation, food and lodging. A snow storm last year ruined the department's Holiday Barn, which every year raises funds for the team. In 1996, the fund-raiser was able to garner enough money to pay the team's way.
Unlike its competitors, the University lacks an indoor polo arena, so the team cannot have home games or practices at UConn past December. The team uses space at Yale University and Shallowbrook Equestrian Center in Massachusetts.
A new barn was built in 1990, and a new truck and horse trailer were added in 1992, but the arena facilities have remained the same for more than 20 years. The lack of facilities tacks on another six to eight hours for the team members, who need to prepare the horses and travel to home games, Dinger said.
"It's very difficult to recruit players because we don't have an indoor arena," he said.
The home games UConn can have at Storrs are also contingent upon the weather, making it hard on the steadfast fans who fill the seats at every match.