Story by Brian Berusch
Photos by C.J. DeWolf / Dawson Media Group
From the sidelines it’s easy to see the allure of the sport. The girls practicing on the field masterfully direct their impeccably groomed ponies. The horses’ tails are perfectly braided, folded and bound in a loop. Each girl wears crisp, white pants with a jersey tucked into a thick belt. The leather of their knee guards and boots is elegantly weathered, like something out of Ralph Lauren’s vintage collection.
Hana Diller fires a quick neck shot downfield, away from the scrum of horses prancing for position, and the ball flies down the sideline. Instantly each rider bolts to top speed while holding their “lanes” as they chase (one of the few rules of polo is that you may not cut off a player riding down the field along an imaginary line). As pack leader Sydni Tobin approaches the ball, the players all raise their mallets as if to strike at once. She winds, nails the ball and passes it to the center of the field setting up Lindsay Holmes to receive and take a shot on goal. But an opposing player—there’s too much dust to make out who—blocks the shot by hooking Holmes’ mallet, and the next thing we see is Noelani Picollo streaking down the field in the opposite direction heading for the goal, ball in control. The other five girls turn their mounts to give chase.
You wouldn’t think that six teenage girls could kick up so much dust, but then again all that dust gives you a sense of why these young polo players are riding rings around their Mainland counterparts. In the last two years the Maui-based Team Makaha (meaning “fierce” in Hawaiian) female arena squad swept all their matches at California’s regionals (both years) and placed fifth in the 2012 national championships held in Connecticut; they placed fourth in 2013.
Upcountry Maui is an unlikely place for the kind of aristocratic amusement that the word “polo” often brings to mind. It’s not like Hamptons, Greenwich and Palm Springs polo, where the boots are polished after and before every match. Where an entire staff tends the horses. Where wealthy patrons fund players and their lifestyle whims. It’s different in Makawao, where there’s no privileged elite; the players are the daughters of surfboard shapers, farmhands, shop managers, housekeepers.
So the question arises: How did six Upcountry girls become one of the best youth teams in the nation over the course of three short years?