Casablanca Captures USPA National 20-Goal Tournament; Jeff Blake Named MVP

The talented foursome of Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini, Mike Azzaro and Jeff Blake defeated defending champion Flexjet (Melissa Ganzi, Jason Crowder, Pablo Dorignac, Juan Bollini), 13-6, to sweep the fall 20-goal tournaments in front of a good crowd at Buenos Aires Field.

Casablanca teammates Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini, Mike Azzaro and Jeff Blake hoisting the coveted trophy. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

Casablanca ended the 2017 fall season with six finals appearances and four tournament victories.

Ganzi, Bollini, Azzaro and Julio Arellano won this year’s USPA North American 20-Goal Cup with a hardfought 11-9 victory over Audi (Guille Aguero, Brandon Phillips, Marc Ganzi, Carlucho Arellano). Casablanca also won the US Trust Cup and USPA Fall Classic.

“I really wanted to win this one,” said Ganzi, who won the North American title three times but never the National 20-Goal. “Mentally, it just clicked. It’s nice to get my name on this trophy.

USPA National 20-Goal finalists Casablanca and Flexjet with awards presenter George DuPont of the Museum of Polo, Hall of Fame.

Photo by ChukkerTV

“I am happy with the way we played today,” Ganzi said. “As the game went on, we just got better and better. We got our rhythm and figured them out more. In the beginning it was close. I think all-around we just played well. We were making good plays. To get the win was great.”

Jeff Blake, 40, a 20-year veteran of the sport, earned back-to-back Most Valuable Player honors. In Sunday’s semifinals, Blake was selected MVP in Casablanca’s thrilling 10-9 victory over Newport. On Tuesday, the 6-goaler came up with the clutch plays and played a key role in his team’s victory to earn MVP honors again.

MVP Jeff Blake of Casablanca with awards presenter George DuPont. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

Said Ganzi, “He’s MVP every day of the week. He’s not flashy, he is a strong player and just makes the plays. He controls us in the back and allows Mike, Juan and I to do our stuff up front.”

“I have won this tournament a few times,” Blake said. “I have won it with Marc and Sugar. It does mean something to me. What’s really special about it is the last time I won a tournament with Mike was twenty years ago. I’ve won tournaments with Juancito’s father and Grant’s father and now I am winning with their sons.

All eyes are on the ball as Jason Crowder of Flexjet works it out of the air. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

“Grant and Juancito are the engine of the team,” Blake said. “They are unbelievable and so disciplined. Their ability combined with how disciplined they are makes it a winning team. They have a calmness about them especially in the final which is unique for players their age. My job is easy. I just have one job to stay back and they handle the rest.”

It was the first time Bollini, 21, a senior at Florida Atlantic University and U.S. Polo Assn. Brand Ambassador, won both 20-goal tournaments.

Juancito Bollini of Casablanca and his flying horse defy gravity as he works the ball out of the air. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

“It’s my first time and actually cool I won them two in a row,” Bollini said. “Polo is so much easier playing with Mike and Jeff. Mike is a phenomenal player, he makes everyone on the field play well, and Jeff makes it easy. And Grant and I have played together for so long. This is pre-season and if I am winning and playing well it’s a sign that I am headed in the right direction when the season comes.”

The final game statistics were close. Casablanca was 11-of-18 and Flexjet was 4-of-10 in field shot conversions. Flexjet was 1-of-1 in penalty conversions and Casablanca was 2-of-3. Casablanca led in fouls, 6-3, and throw-ins,10-9.

Brazil teammates Gustavo Toledo and Calao Mello enjoying the game before Saturday’s International Cup against Team USA.
Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

The game was close in the first half,  tied 2-2 after the opening chukker. Casablanca outscored Flexjet 3-1 in the second chukker to take a 5-3 lead which held after a scoreless and defensive third chukker.

Flexjet trailed by only one after Dorignac’s penalty-two conversion before Casablanca reeled off six goals in the fourth and fifth chukkers to pull away for an 11-4 lead going into the final chukker.

Ganzi scored a game-high six goals. Bollini and Azzaro each had three goals and Blake added one goal. Ganzi finished with nine goals, Azzaro had six goals and Bollini had five goals for the tournament.

Mike Azzaro of Casablanca follows the ball with teammate Grant Ganzi and Juan Bollini defending. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

“These young boys played awesome,” Azzaro said. “They are a blast to play with. You can see the advancement and improvement that Grant has done on his riding and anticipating on the field and reading the game. He creates a great target for me to pass to. And Juancito is a hell of a worker on the field. They are both great teammates.

“And Jeff Blake is a world-class player,” Azzaro said. “He’s played fifteen U.S. Opens, that guy has so much experience. He’s never been flashy and the guy has won best player in the USPA Gold Cup three or four times. He’s a machine and blast to play with.”

Flexjet was led by Crowder with three goals. Ganzi, Bollini and Dorignac each had one goal.

American Polo Horse Association Tournament Best Playing Pony Paulina. Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

Three horses earned Best Playing Pony honors for the tournament.

The United States Polo Association Best Playing Pony went to Pitkin, 4-year-old bay mare ridden by Dorignac.

The American Polo Horse Association Game Best Playing Pony was Carnval, a 12-year old chestnut gelding ridden by Ganzi and groomed by Horacio Godoy.

The APHA Tournament Best Playing Pony was Paulina, an 8-year old chestnut mare ridden by Dorignac in the final and Alejandro Novillo Astrada in the semifinal and groomed by Jonathan Castillo.

American Polo Horse Association Game Best Playing Pony Carnval.  Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

Godoy and Castillo were each awarded $250 by the APHA. The APHA, created in 2006 by the legendary Sunny Hale, recognizes polo ponies in America and encourages events that showcase them. Tiana Smicklas is executive director of the APHA.

“We want to get more tournaments that will give these awards and also money to the grooms because they are so important and get them recognition because they work so hard,” Smicklas said. “We would like to have a record base here (in the U.S.) of all the horses that are playing here and we want to keep it going. It’s a great way to keep Sunny’s legacy alive.”

Popular local singer Tom Blake and brother of MVP Jeff Blake started off the morning with a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem. Brazil ‘s players and coach Jose Mirelles, in town preparing for Saturday’s USPA International Cup, were among the crowd lined along the field that dried quickly and played safely despite evening and early morning rain.

United States Polo Association Best Playing Pony Pitkin.
Photo by Sheryel Aschfort

Casablanca now joins an impressive list of  National 20-Goal tournament champions that includes BTA, KIG, Audi, Flight Options and Flexjet.

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