Forging Ahead at Bench Minor IV
The fourth annual Bench Minor tournament was held in Los Angeles this past weekend, where the stage was set for some phenomenal bike polo matches, showcasing some of the most talented athletes in the sport. Just 48 players from a list of nearly 300 were drafted by the six general managers tapped to cultivate and lead their teams in the battle for polo supremacy.
“It’s the most physically intense and highly skilled tournament that’s out there,” said organizer Alex Dash, who also played for the Los Punishers team. “The base of bike polo is pickup where you play in your city; the teams get mixed up and you play with random teams 90 percent of the time, but when you go to a tournament you pick your team and you play other set teams and you only play that grouping, so it’s sort of the opposite of pickup—then when you look at this tournament you’re kind of blending the two, and then that blend gets turned up, so what polo is based on is multiplied into a much higher thing compared to a regular tournament, where it’s sort of inverted.”
Each team had in on its roster a few players who played together regularly, but all were largely composed of players who had never played a game together before the weekend came—including the winning team, Global United, whose lineup, shaped by heavy hitter Eric Kremin, brought players from Japan and the UK into the fold.
“It shows the true meaning of teamwork,” said Dash, “It’s one thing that you hang out with guys and you’re always playing with them all the time. You can build a team, but this [format] shows who is a naturally good teammate.”
The weekend also marked several significant milestones in bike polo. The host club in L.A. kept track of player statistics and conducted a video replay at one point, but the biggest one, arguably, may be the institution of a dedicated and paid referee. Seattle polo player Paul Danos was interviewed and selected for the job following extensive conference between organizers, GMs and a few veteran players who have taken up the difficult task of refereeing bike polo matches in the past.
The role of the referee and varying levels of rule enforcement among refs is one of the most delicate issues in bike polo. While the idea of hiring a ref has been considered for several years, it had never before been implemented, leaving the job to those staid volunteers willing to take up the thankless job of calling out their peers (often friends or opponents) and keeping everyone on the court in line.
“Having one ref the entire weekend was huge—no difference in officiating from game to game, just one person,” said Chris Colagionvanni, who also had his eyes on every game as part of the stats team throughout the weekend. “I don’t think the pay had anything to do with it. What is important is it’s a well respected player in the game and someone that both the players know, and the ref knows the players also.”
While refereeing for 18 hours of polo in a weekend is a demanding job, and may lead to an exhausted ref by the time finals are under way, overall, having a dedicated and unbaised ref who was not participating in competition dissolved much of the common contention surrounding ref calls and set the stage for a higher level of both sportsmanship and safe play.
And while organizers came under criticism for drawing out a halftime period for a video replay to confirm a goal that no one was quite sure of, it provided 100-percent certainty in the accuracy of a one-point goal differential in the last game of the seeding rounds, a game that would determine the fourth team to enter the elimination rounds.
“It was an insanely stressful situation,” said Colagiovanni, “and as the tourney grew deeper, each goal meant more and more. Bottom line, I just did not want to have any doubt, and after that ordeal, there was no doubt. We have video, why not use it. After all, it is a tool at our disposal.”
On top of going the extra mile to ensure impartial officiating, L.A. Bike Polo set a new standard in keeping statistics well beyond basic game scores and goal differentials.
“I have been clamoring about keeping stats in polo for a while now,” said Colagiovanni. “Stats is just a part of all other sports; while they certainty don’t tell the whole story they also can’t lie and you can’t cover them up.”
The two-man stats team kept track of goals, shot attempts, assists, turnovers, steals, saves and blocks, and dabs. Goal judges were also in place to assist, of course. Player statistics from Bench Minor 4 are available here.
“Previously the high water mark was which player scored what goal when, and plus-minus rating,” said Dash. “Those are solid statistics, but they don’t really tell the whole story, in a bench tournament or otherwise. There are many components to figuring out who has a likely chance at winning when you look at more statistics.
“We’ve just had what you call the ‘eyeball test’: You look at a player playing polo and you just say ‘Is he good or bad?’
“This tournament shows that through the stats, if you look at them, you need a lot of evenly built players who can come together and do what’s right for each other even when they’re not on the court. You can have high averages in this and that, but if you want to actually win this incredibly difficult tournament, you have to be evenly built. You can’t just be a Goliath in one category.”
After two solid days of intense games, the final match was even still the hottest, fastest polo to be seen anywhere.
“All six bench teams were amazing,” said Colagiovanni, “I personally have never seen faster, more intense polo in my life. It was cool to see how the intensity of the last game combined with nobody wanting to go home without the cup. It was just non-stop, lights out, the fastest pedaling in polo I have ever seen.”