If you ask Hilario Ulloa why Las Monjitas is going like gangbusters this season, you’ may remember a catchphrase from an old presidential campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid!”). Although Ulloa is too much of a gentleman to finish the sentence the same way, the first words out of his mouth will be, “It’s the horses.”
That’s not to minimize the magic of the new LM lineup, and Ulloa is quick to add his teammates to the equation. But anyone watching the Hurlingham Open would have to be from another planet to have not noticed the rocket-like performance of this year’s Las Monjitas string.
“I’m really proud of Monjitas. It’s a big organization and very well-known from the past few years,” said Ulloa. “But they made a big improvement on horses this year. They provided us with all the horses they had before, plus another 10 or 12 that they bought or leased. All of them played the Open last year. So I see a very strong team horse-wise, and the team is playing very solid and with great intensity. I think if we keep on this way, we have a chance in the semis. Of course, it’s always very difficult to beat La Dolfina, but our team is ready for a good game. We just have to play the way we’ve been playing.”
We’ll find out this weekend if their roll continues. The semis start today with Ellerstina v. La Aguada. The “Z” always puts on a good show, and today should be no different when they play at 1:30 p.m. local time. But we’ll have to wait one more day for the battle royal: La Dolfina v. Las Monjitas tomorrow at 4 p.m. local time. The big question is whether we’ll see a game like last year’s Hurlingham semifinal between La Dolfina and Alegria.
The big buzz last season was Alegria's historic upset of La Dolfina in the Hurlingham semis, and with this year's edition a Las Monjitas team featuring three of the same players is looking for a repeat performance. While Alegria was disbanded in a surprising fashion after last year's success, the goal of the spinoff team has been clear from the get-go: to match the 40-goal juggernauts Ellerstina and La Dolfina.
LM’s first attempt to do so this year came in the Tortugas Open semifinals against Ellerstina. However, LM was a step behind the entire game, never really challenging Ellerstina and falling by 5 goals (15-10). With a continued eye on upsetting the top two teams this year, Las Monjitas made a sudden change, maintaining their core of three (captain Sapo Caset, Facundo Sola and Ulloa), but replacing Julian de Lusarreta with prototypical #4 Santiago Toccalino. The switch sets them more in the style of last year's Alegria line-up that featured Fred Mannix in the #4 position.
Going by the results from league play in the Hurlingham Open, that was a wise decision. The evidence: Las Monjitas’ death march over La Canada Angiocor-DRF (20-6) and their solid taking of Cria Yatay (14-10). They also defeated La Albertina (13-8), but the score does not reflect how close a shave it was. La Albertina put Las Monjitas to the test, requiring of them a strong last two chukkers to claim victory and leaving some question about whether Las Monjitas would be able to pull off the next step. The answer was yes.
The offensive combo of Caset and Sola has been crucial for Las Monjitas, with them averaging a combined 13.7 shots per game and ranking first and second respectively among all players. Sola especially has been a factor during open play, leading the team with 13 field goals, just one behind tournament leader Adolfo Cambiaso. With the Caset-Sola duo leading the tournament offensively, the success of Las Monjitas comes down to their defense performance, especially when facing teams of the caliber of Ellerstina and La Dolfina. In last year's upset, La Dolfina's runs were limited, which kept their horse power in check and forced them into pressured pass attempts throughout the game. With Mannix, Caset and Ulloa jumping on all the passes last year to thwart the La Dolfina attack, this year's team will have to deploy a similar strategy in order to contain La Dolfina. Toccalino will have to be disciplined and constantly be aware of a quick La Dolfina counterattack that puts so many teams a step behind.
Entering the semifinal with a 37-goal handicap, Las Monjitas is within reach to challenge La Dolfina. They have the offense to match and the potential defense, but they cannot afford to foul a mega-team that thrives on placing their opponents in vulnerable positions. La Dolfina enters tomorrow’s game averaging a massive 7.7 penalty goals per game. The next closest contenders are Las Monjitas and Ellerstina, at just 4.3 penalty goals per game. The ability to keep the La Dolfina attack from receiving fouls will be crucial to Las Monjitas’ success—and so far in the Hurlingham Open they have been successful, committing the second-fewest number of fouls (the only team with less is—guess who?—La Dolfina). If they can keep their opponent off the penalty line, LM can present a complete team defensive effort that jumps on every pass from La Dolfina and doesn't give the likes of Adolfo Cambiaso or Juan Martin Nero the time to generate a consistent attack.
“It’s been a fun week getting ready,” said LM captain Sapo Caset yesterday. “We’re all excited about Sunday. We have a lot of faith in the team, and the horses are in great shape. I think it’s going to be a fun game to watch, too. We know it’s going to be really difficult because we’re playing against La Dolfina, a 40-goal team that is the best of the best. We’re going to try to play our best and give everything on the field. So we’ll see how it goes on Sunday, but we’re for sure going to give our 100 percent. We’re ready to give battle.”
TOURNAMENT STATS: LAS MONJITAS
The Hurlingham Open semifinals and final, as well as all games in the Argentine Open, will be streamed live on https://live.aapolo.com.