May 14, 2003 11:00 pm
GETTING READY FOR THE BIG BOYS: Eastern students Jennica Cobb (foreground) and Dylan Botham pursue the ball during practice while being tailed by high school player Logan Joseph (in red). (The Observer/PIERRE LaBOSSIERE).
GETTING READY FOR THE BIG BOYS: Eastern students Jennica Cobb (foreground) and Dylan Botham pursue the ball during practice while being tailed by high school player Logan Joseph (in red). (The Observer/PIERRE LaBOSSIERE).

By Pierre LaBossire

Observer Staff Writer

There is a sports team at Eastern Oregon University that's more than holding its own against such Pac-10 behemoths as Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State.

It isn't the track team. While Eastern track runs at some of the same meets as Pac-10 schools, the Eastern athletes usually don't compete directly against Pac-10 athletes.

But the first-year Eastern Oregon polo team does.

Team organizer Melissa Joseph, who is also hoping to start up a high school polo program at La Grande High School next year, said the college team is made up of a mix of recreational riders, youth polo players and rodeo riders.

In fact, Casey Smergut of Wallowa is on both the Eastern rodeo and polo teams, and team member Angela Yoder couldn't practice last week because she had a prior engagement as the queen of the Vale Rodeo.

The team competes at a club level, and plays home matches along Highway 203 just outside of La Grande. There are 10 young men and women from Eastern who have already played a number of matches indoors and outdoors throughout the West Coast.

The program got started when flyers went up at Eastern asking if there was interest in forming a polo team. Enough kids showed interest that men and women's teams were put together.

Most of the college students on the team had some horse riding experience but little or no polo experience coming into this season. All the team members spoke with pride of going against more established programs at far bigger schools.

"It's a unique sport. It gets us out of school and we get to participate in a sport," said team member Trevor Ferguson.

"It's kind of a unique opportunity to go up against bigger schools and still compete with them. It says a lot for a program like ours," said Ferguson.

Typical of a beginning program, funding and equipment have to be taken care of. Three of the horses were donated to Eastern, and the team has held fund-raisers this spring to finance the program.

"They're doing excellent, considering that most of them are beginners," said Joseph.

"Eastern is the smallest university on the West Coast involved in polo," she said. "It's one of the few times we can really compete against Pac-10 teams."

For being so small, the men's and women's teams have made more than a respectable showing. The women have won three matches and lost two, while the men have won one and lost two.

The Eastern women nearly pulled off a big upset over OSU in Pendleton earlier this year.

Jennica Cobb of Wallowa said she decided to join because "of the horses. There's nothing better than riding horses," she said. "I didn't know anything about polo. I thought it'd be something different."

Cobb said that in addition to getting out and riding, she's made some good friends on the team.

"Our team is really close. We've all become really good friends. We've become a family," said Cobb.

Dylan Botham is one of the team members who's actually played before. He played in his youth, but stopped after he broke his collarbone when he was 11 or 12.

"It was good to get back into a sport. The biggest thing I like is the comraderieship.

"Of course, playing it is such a rush," Botham said.

Botham said it's great that "a small university like Eastern can just jump right into it and be fierce competition for Washington State and Oregon State."

Joseph said the hardest things for the newcomers to pick up in polo are the "coordination and the timing.

"If you know how to ride a horse, you're way ahead of the game," she said.

The strategy and plays in polo are similar to hockey. There's even a lot of physical contact like in hockey with riders jostling against each other for position as they chase the ball.

Melissa and Steve Joseph's son, Logan, plays on a Tacoma-based high school team. Their daughter, Lindsey, plays on a powerful team at the University of California-Davis.

Logan said he's been talking to other kids at La Grande High, seeing if there's interest. He said some kids are intrigued, though others "are a little scared of it."

Eastern will be competing Memorial Day weekend at a home meet against Washington State and Oregon State. It's possible teams from Blue Mountain Community College and Boise State may attend. There will be adult polo with teams from Boise competing against the La Grande Polo Club.

Melissa Joseph said bigger schools play a lot of "arena polo." Like indoor soccer, the rules are a little different from outdoors. The ball is bigger, like a soccer ball, and it can be bounced off the walls as in indoor soccer.

Joseph expects that the bigger schools are going to enjoy the Eastern event, because it is outdoors.

"It's a big treat for them," she said.

Joseph said that in addition to WSU, OSU and Stanford, other West Coast schools with polo programs are UC-Davis, UC-Santa Barbara, USC, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, UC-San Diego and Westmont, a small private school in Southern California.