The Three Kings

Ryan Cronin-Prather’s freshman and sophomore seasons on the Westmont College men’s club polo team witnessed two appearances in the U.S. Polo Association National Intercollegiate Championship, the collegiate level’s marquee event. In back-to-back years, Cronin-Prather and two teammates squared off against and, in many cases, overcame the nation’s elite, from the vaunted Cavaliers of the University of Virginia to the titans of Texas A&M. Cronin-Prather’s third season, however, would be spent in idled anticipation, as Westmont failed to recruit enough players to field a three-man team.

“It’s a major problem because polo is such a small sport,” said the Westmont senior from Modesto. “To be able to promote it and recruit even three players is rather difficult.”

When Cronin-Prather returned for his fourth year, he was joined by freshman Collin White, who had been his polo teammate for one year during high school. Short one player to complete the roster, the old teammates recruited Alex de La Torre Bueno, an Ojai freshman who came to the team with only four years of polo experience. John Westley, the head instructor for the Santa Barbara International Polo Training Center who has coached multiple college teams, oftentimes simultaneously, agreed to coach Westmont for another season.

In its eight preliminary matches, the Westmont three emerged undefeated and would later sweep though Stanford, UC Davis and the University of Southern California in regional competition. At nationals, held this year in Lexington, Kentucky, the team took down Cornell and Virginia before losing 12-8 in a hard-fought championship match against Texas A&M on April 7. Not too shabby for a small college of 1,200 students that arrived in Kentucky forced to borrow ponies from opposing schools.

“It’s truly a Cinderella story,” said Scott Craig, Westmont’s head of media relations. “It is amazing what these guys were able to do with so little.”

The Cinderella Story

Compared to major sports like basketball and football, collegiate polo has only had marginal levels of participation, which has assured that an elite few hold primacy over the game. The established schools – such as Cornell, Stanford or Virginia – have over the years built rich traditions and strong programs that now enjoy a recurring flow of scholarship players and coteries of fans who chant their college’s fight song with the passing of every chucker. The Texas A&M polo team’s website, for instance, has an alphabetized tribute to each of its 22 ponies, replete with the picture and name of each horse and the person who donated it. This makes Westmont’s sudden emergence all the more surprising.

The Westmont men’s polo team was formed six years ago and according to Westley came two years after the advent of the women’s team. This means that Westley, who has coached polo for UCSB, Santa Barbara City College and high school programs, has gotten used to inheriting teams with little experience. To overcome this gap, every Westley squad has incorporated what the sport calls the phalanx formation, a nod to the ancient Roman art of fighting that demands each participant to mind his surroundings and “hold the line.” More seasoned teams wouldn’t be tethered to such a rigid strategy, Westley said, but the coach has found success in instilling his players with a lofty sense of discipline.

“The Roman soldiers were not professional soldiers, they were citizens,” said Westley, who is 50 and a native of New Zealand. “Working as a unit was effective but if they were separated, they wouldn’t have a chance at all.”

Westley’s system proved a huge draw for Cronin-Prather, who credited his “polo dad” for taking “real interest” in his development and for helping him make “an incredible jump in refinement of skills.”

Until nationals, Westmont practiced and played its matches in the friendly and close confines of the arena at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club using ponies leased by the training center. With Kentucky almost 2,000 miles away, the team couldn’t transport its ponies, so it borrowed horses from each of its adversaries, a change in habit that White called a “huge factor.”

“There’s nothing like riding your own horse,” said White, who’s been playing ever since he was a kid. “I can usually spend three or four minutes before the chucker and get a feel for the horse, but it definitely made a difference especially when we played Texas A&M.”

Nationals put each of the players in an unknown environment, competing in an arena with different dimensions and facing teams with more than 30 players and as many as 60 horses, all to the persistent howl of opposing fans. Undaunted, the Westmont three reveled in the fun and frenzy.

Said Cronin-Prather: “It makes it all the more exciting.”

Crowning New Kings

One subtext to Westmont’s unexpected success is Westley’s continuing quest to broaden the appeal of polo and make the game more affordable and accessible. Westley, a 20-year veteran of the sport, is director of a polo school that includes stabling for more than 350 horses, one enclosed arena and four outdoor fields. The school offers courses for all skill levels and supplies the horses and equipment. Westmont’s polo players, for example, each only have to put forward $1,600 for the five-month season, and the training center picks up the rest.

“The program is not only designed to produce future polo players but also give some others the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play the game,” said Westley, who came to Santa Barbara seven years ago from Sacramento. Polo may be called “the sport of kings,” but it’s a moniker Westley has come to view less as complimentary and more as pejorative.

“That’s probably one of the worst sayings to ever happen to this sport because it’s made it intimidating,” he said. “There are different levels to the game of polo. And I’ll tell you what, sometimes the people who play the low-goal grade of polo have a lot more fun than the people who play high-goal.”