You’re Polito Pieres, it’s the second half of the 2017 Hurlingham Open final and your team is trailing. Then things get worse. Much worse. A horse stumbles at full speed, catapulting its rider over its head. Lying motionless on the field is—nooo!—Facundo Pieres.
The fall looks worse than it turns out to be (brutal bruises but no serious injuries for Facundo, and the horse is reportedly fine). But as the ambulance whisks your cousin away, you don’t know any of that. All you know is: There goes your team’s edge, and you still have three-and-a-half chukkers left to play against Alegría, who beat odds-on favorite La Dolfina in the semis. Oh, and one more thing: You have to be Facundo (as well as yourself) for the rest of the game. Otherwise your team, the defending champion, is toast.
The squeeze started in the fifth chukker, with Alegría ahead 9-8. Facundo was flying beside opponent Fred Mannix when Facundo’s horse tripped. Its front legs folded, and the force flipped Facundo over the horse’s front end. He slammed onto the ground with a horrific thud, landing on his upper body/shoulder area, and lay stone still. The medics lifted him onto a stretcher, his neck stabilized in a collar. As he was loaded into the ambulance, he flashed that Pepsodent-white Pieres smile and gave a thumbs-up, but his hands and forearms were bloodied and banged-up. He was whisked away to a medical facility, put through every test imaginable (with good results) and kept overnight for observation.
As we now know, Polito went on to save the day with 11 goals (an incredible personal best in a final) and Ellerstina defeated Alegría 16-14. But before we saw him at the award ceremony punching the air, flinging his arms wide open, and wearing a “Thank God this ended well” expression, Polito and company had to jump through a few of Dantes’ rings of hell.
The first challenge was securing a sub for Facundo. Good luck finding an available 10-goaler in Argentina during the season. Ellerstina reached out to 7-goaler Lucas James, who filled in admirably. But of course no one (except Facundo) is Facundo, so Ellerstina had to do some quick positional shuffling.
James, Nico Pieres and Gonzalito Pieres all stepped up defensively. James slid into more of a support role (mainly blocking and riding off), a role that Gonzalito has typically played. Gonzalito became more active around the ball and Polito began using the dribble more with support from Gonza. Nico, knowing that without support from Facundo he was the last line of defense, was exceptionally strong in the back position.
Not having Facundo on the offensive side seemed to free Polito up to play to his potential and really control the ball. He generated the offense for Ellerstina, scoring five straight goals to turn a three-goal deficit into a two-goal lead. Polito made three goals in the fifth, sixth and seventh chukkers and converted a penalty 4 to end the seventh, providing Ellerstina with a significant two-goal advantage with time running out for Alegría.
With Lucas James and Gonzalito Pieres stepping up defensively, Ellerstina held Alegría to five goals in the second half (compared to nine in the first half). Ellerstina used a balanced offense, with their players adding at least one goal apiece. Nico Pieres contributed a stunning 110-yard shot that put Ellerstina ahead 13-12 in the seventh
Still, Ellerstina had to contend with a scoring frenzy by four magenta-jerseyed demons. Although they weren't generating as many scoring chances as Ellerstina, Alegría made nearly every shot attempt they took, scoring on 7 of 9 in the first half. Alegría captain Sapo Caset was perfect from the penalty line through the first seven chukkers, going 5/5. In the eighth he went 1/2 for a total of 6/7 on the game.
Caset and Hilario Ulloa, Alegría’s 10-goalers, made it their job to give Ellerstina grief at every possible turn, particularly after Facundo left. They attacked relentlessly and pressured the Ellerstina defense into tough decisions on playing the ball, forcing them into a flurry of fouls. Later in the game the “Z” began to clean up their fouls and take charge, controlling the ball via Polito. But that was quite a while coming. Ellerstina never took the lead until the sixth chukker, at which point, as the AAP’s report so aptly described it, the game became “messy and vibrant.” It stayed that way until the end—a fitting closure to a Triple Crown tournament.
-Ellerstina shoots 9/24
-Alegría shoots 8/14 total, but only 1/5 in second half
-Polito Pieres scores 11 to Sapo Caset’s 8
-Teams tie 17-17 on throw-in wins and 15-15 on fouls (high # of fouls)
-2nd chukker key for Alegría, as they win it 5-1
-5th chukker key for Ellerstina, winning it 3-0
Photos by Katerina Morgan