When I heard that Bloomington’s bike polo club was hosting a tournament for newer members of the game, I knew that Francis had to go and show his old club what he had learned playing polo in, what I believe to be, one of the strongest polo clubs in the world.
Iron sharpens iron, and our small club full of shredders has spent the past five months turning Francis into the sharpest young gun I have seen since Rookie Nick started shredding in CoMo. Francis just needed a solid team backing him.
I knew Francis had the potential to blow the minds of his former club members; he just needed the support of two other players that weren’t serious polo veterans. The potential I saw led me to slightly take, what I felt like was, a coach/leadership role in the whole situation. Nothing was going to get in the way of Francis shredding against his former club…I was going to do whatever it took to make sure that happened.
When it came time to building a team around Francis, Evan was an obvious first choice. Evan started playing polo late last summer, missed extended stretches of winter polo, but has still grown into a solid young gun and a smart, consistent goalie. Even in the weeks leading up the Indiana Invitational, I witnessed Evans attacking skills develop at a rapid pace. His slap shot was getting harder and more consistent, and he had mastered “The Ben Shot.” With Evan teaming up with Francis, two solid pieces of the puzzle gelled perfectly into place.
The hunt for a third teammate was on. A couple of options were kicked around, but when those scenarios fell through the cracks, I was willing and eager to step into the final spot on the team as the tournament quickly approached. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity; there was so much to (potentially) gain from this tournament:
-Get another semi-serious tournament under my belt before North Americans.
-See Bloomington’s reaction when they see the new, improved, STL trained Francis.
-Be the first STL team to podium in a tournament.
So we were set. The three of us played two practice games together on a Wednesday night ten days before the tournament. That was all the practice we needed or could manage as Evan was leaving town a few days later.
At 4:00 AM on Saturday morning, we were on Highway 70 on a collision course for Bloomington, Indiana. Francis was running on no sleep after working the entire night before. His inability to sleep in the car meant that once the tournament started, Francis had been awake for 24 hours…And we were just about to start a full day of polo in the sun.
The challenge was issued.
As we did a little pre-tournament prep work, I saw a guy from Columbus, OH that I remembered from a tournament in Lexington, KY earlier this year. The guy’s name was Peter, and I knew that if we wanted to win the tournament, our St. Louis team was going to have to go through Peter and his teammates.
As Evan, Francis, and I rolled around one of the rinks and attempted to warm up our shooting, Evan rolled through a wet, muddy slick spot on the rink and fell hard. The tournament hadn’t even started yet, and Evan had already set the bar pretty high in the “Best Crash” competition. Evan jacked his hand and got his Hood Kicks shirt dirty.
Would Evan be able to shake off an injury?
Would Francis’ lack of sleep make him bonk in the middle of the day?
We were about to find out.
Our first game pitted us (Dignified Gentlemen) against a young team from Decatur, IL. We swore that we wouldn’t underestimate any team in the tournament, so at the cry of “3…2…1…Polo”, Francis and I were off, looking for blood and goals. We were too much to handle, and Dignified Gentlemen jumped out to an early lead. I took a seat in goal and let Evan and Francis do the hard work. The score was 5-0 in a matter of minutes.
Our second game was foreshadowing of things to come. We were pitted against Columbus, and things got wild. At one point, I was sitting in goal watching Francis racing against one of Columbus’ players. Francis was peddling so frantically, his left foot slipped off the pedal and violently kicked the Columbus player’s bike. The guy screamed out, “Don’t kick my bike!” On the other side of the rink, it sounded like he said, “Don’t hit my bike.” He looked angry, and I thought we were about to be in the middle of a fight. I yelled out, “It’s f*cking bike polo!” Francis apologized, calmly explained the accident, and cooler heads prevailed. The rest of the game was a blur, but it ended with a 5-2 victory for the Dignified Gentlemen.
Our third game was against Electric Wizards…Bloomington’s “A” team that day. Thanks to a blistering pace from Francis, we left the rink with a 5-1 victory and watched as an exhausted Zach puked in the corner. As Zach puked, I thought, “Yeah, we made THAT happen.”
The fourth tame was against another Bloomington team. It was a pretty easy victory. I’m pretty sure Francis scored at least four of the goals. My favorite part of the game (maybe the tournament) was when a guy named Travis stole the ball and had a clear break towards the goal on the left wing. I felt like we had just screwed Evan and hung him out to dry all alone. I refused to let anyone have an unchallenged shot on goal, so I cranked my pedals. I raced down and across the rink, locked up my rear wheel, whipped my bike sideways, slid into Travis wheel to wheel, and stuffed his shot. It was the perfect bike polo check. They don’t get cleaner. They don’t get much harder. I took the ball, continued the play, and listened to everyone hum over that play. After the game, I apologized to Travis about the check. I honestly didn’t want to run into him that hard. His response was perfect, “No way man! That was awesome. I love a good check!” He instantly earned my respect. We need more people like Travis in Bike Polo.
The last game of the Swiss Rounds was 100% “The Francis Show.” According to the text updates that I was sending Nick, Francis scored four goals. I don’t even think they had a good, uncontested shot.
Once the double-elimination tournament started, things were falling into place. We were eating smart, resting well, and staying hydrated. Our first game in the bracket turned out to be a bye, so we jumped to the next round and faced the Electric Wizards again. At the very beginning of the game, Evan from Bloomington unleashed a lazer that would’ve made Nick Knobbe proud. It nearly burned a hole in the back of the net. For the first time that day, we were trailing in a game. It was 1-0, and we weren’t going to stand for that. Nothing was said, Francis and I just found another gear to shift into. At the end of the game it was 5-1 in favor of the Dignified Gentlemen. Bloomington had one shot…One goal.
After that game, we played Ft. Wayne. I’m almost positive they didn’t register a single shot. We were firing on all cylinders. We came out with guns blazing. We didn’t know anything about Ft. Wayne, we could taste the finals, and we didn’t want to give up our first elimination. So we came out looking to kill. We probably came out way too strong, but “too strong” trumps “too weak” any day in my opinion.
The Semifinals pitted us against a team from Indianapolis. The highlight of the game was one of the Indy guys saying, “You guys are like Iceland from ‘The Mighty Ducks’” as he restarted the game after a Dignified Gentlemen goal. We were cruising and on our way to the finals.
After an uncharacteristic loss to Decatur, Columbus spent the late hours of the afternoon fighting their way out of the losers’ bracket. We rested in the shade as they played two tough back-to-back games in an attempt to meet us in the finals. Our successful, undefeated streak throughout the day really paved the way for lost of rest and time in the shade.
Columbus broke Bloomington’s heart in sudden death, and stepped into the finals with the purple shirts from St. Louis. This was the finals I anticipated the moment I saw Columbus arrive that morning. Days earlier, Zach from Bloomington had placed bets on these two teams being in the finals and STL winning.
Who were we to disappoint?
Everyone lined the fences. The last match of the game was about to begin. Behind the goal, I gave Evan and Francis the pre-game speech I said before every game we played that day: “Play smart. Work hard. Have fun. Let’s make Andrew W.K. proud. Let’s make St. Louis proud. I want to give Nick a good new text update after this game.”
Zach yelled, “3..2..1..Polo” and we were off. If memory serves me right, I got the joust, sprinted towards the goal, and executed a precise “Ben Shot” to take the early lead. From then on, most of the game was a blur. I remember racing everywhere and fighting off some full-sprint, shoulder-to-shoulder screens from Peter. I thought we racked up a quick 3-0 lead before Columbus got their first goal. That goal was allowed by me when the few goalie skills I have evaporated on a Columbus breakaway. I was momentarily mad at myself for the mental mistake and vowed to make up for it. Unfortunately, when I took it up looking for revenge, I made a pathetic pass to Francis that was intercepted and taken down the rink for a good scoring opportunity. Luckily, Evan stood tall in goal and denied the potential momentum swing.
Moments after that save, I redeemed myself with a cheeky little goal that padded our lead a bit more. After a wide-right shot, I raced to the left side of the goal, stopped, pulled the ball from behind the goal back in front, and tucked it into the goalie’s back door. I couldn’t help but smile on the slow ride back to our end. I was certain that it was now 4-1, and we were one goal away from a 1st place finish.
On the ensuing attack, Evan made a great save and jumped from his position in goal. Francis got the rebound and with a simple touch, put the ball in Evan's path. Evan just had to take it the length of the rink. And that’s what he did.
I screamed out, “EVAN, WIN THE GAME!”
He was gone. Hammering his pedals. He got down to the other end, locked up his rear wheel, skidded sideways, and easily tucked the ball into the goal.
I was thrilled.
I was about to tackle Evan, but Columbus protested. They insisted that was only the 4th goal. Most of the game was a blur to me, so I couldn’t recall goals to refute their claims. Annoyed that they just stole the title of “Tournament Winning Goal” from Evan, I shouted, “That’s fine. We’ll beat you again.”
That was probably a cocky, asshole thing to say. Something below the polite, Dignified Gentlemen. I tried to be polite and humble the entire day. For the brief moment, where I went from ecstatic for Evan to annoyed about people’s (including my own) inability to keep track of the score, this Dignified Gentleman was anything but.
We played on. It was Columbus’ ball. They carried the ball into our end and spanked a shot into our goal. It was time to end this.
A few missed chances left Francis and me wanting in the attacking end. It wasn’t until the ball got stuck in the corner of the rink that fate began to solidify our place in that moment of time. I was nosed into the corner and wasn’t going to be able to cleanly escape with the ball. The two attacking Columbus players inched towards me waiting for a mistake. I grabbed the fence, cupped the ball on my opposite side, and looked up to see Francis camped out in front of the net. A simple balljoint pass went directly into the Tides where Francis had all the time in the world to bury the (second) tournament winning goal. With a gentle swing and a well placed shot, we were champions!
(Evan's face in this photo is amazing!)
After the trophy presentations, we hit the kicker ramp, set off fireworks, and blasted Andrew W.K. as we loaded our gear into the car and danced around our trophy.
That night we partied hard and witnessed things we’ll probably never be able to put into words.
In the early morning hours, we all slept in the same room and dreamed of our amazing day as the air conditioner hummed above our heads.