STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Kareem Rosser approached the ball knowing his performance in the overtime shootout would go a long way toward determining whether Colorado State would advance to its second national championship game in three years.
The senior, who grew up on welfare in west Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, raised his mallet, brought it down alongside his horse and struck what looks like a mini soccer ball into a goal 25-yards away. CSU's top-seeded arena polo team rode off Wednesday night with the 24-23 win over SMU after trailing by two goals late in regulation.
"My stomach was in my saddle," Rosser said.
Colorado State, which will play Texas A& M for the title Saturday, is one of about 50 U.S. colleges and universities with competitive polo programs, according to the United States Polo Association, which is holding its national championships this week at the University of Connecticut.
That is a 35 percent increase over the last five years, according to the USPA. About 60 other schools have programs, but don't participate in intercollegiate competitions.
It's a sport few people on campus even know exists at the college level, and even fewer believe he plays, Rosser said.
"Most people stereotype polo as being for only really wealthy people, princes and kings," he said. "But that's not the case. A lot of people don't know, they have polo in their backyard."
Rosser started riding when he was 8 years old in an inner-city program in Philadelphia called Work to Ride, which reaches out to underprivileged inner-city youth, giving them access to horses and polo in exchange for doing chores around the stable.
He is now the captain and player-coach of the Rams. He said polo clubs and supporters are helping him pay for school, where his is an economics major.
"Polo has been my passport to the world, an escape from where I grew up and it's changed my life," he said.
Colleges, unlike many elite professional clubs, try to make the sport accessible to anyone who wants to ride, said Jon Nicholson, who coaches UConn, where the women's team lost Thursday's semifinal game against rival Cornell, missing a chance at an eighth national championship.
The schools provide the players with the horses and most of their gear, such as saddles.
The game is played in an indoor arena, as opposed to the 10-acre fields of most professional contests. There are four 7 1/2 minute periods called "chukkers." Tie games go to a shootout, with each player taking an uncontested shot on goal from 25-yards out.
UConn's horses are owned by the school's animal science department, many donated by alumni of the program that has been a club sport at the school since 1968.
Animal science students and the polo team both care for the animals, giving the team a built-in fan base.
"We also have a research program with the horses," said Steven Zinn, the head of the department. "Most of that has to do with muscle biology and how the animals age."
In college polo, players travel from school to school but the horses do not. The teams, with three riders on each side, play using the same "string" of the home team's ponies. The teams switch horses after every chukker to help prevent any home-horse advantage.
For the national championships, other horses have been brought in from Skidmore College, Cornell, Yale and the University of Virginia.
"The only thing you need coming into the sport is a very good riding background, and an awareness of how to play a team sport," Nicholson said.
UConn's Tessa Kell said she had no idea know how to play before joining the school's beginner program.
"I just loved the game so much that I continued to play and now I'm a member of the team," she said.
The setup varies from school to school.
Texas A&M coach Mike McCleary says he has raised enough money to provide each of his players with a small scholarship, enough to offset the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition at the school.
"Typically, if I can get $10,000 a semester in scholarships, we're in high cotton," he said.
Players pay their own travel expenses. It's costing each of the Aggies about $700 to play in the nationals, McCleary said.
Casey Woodfin, a junior from Wharton Texas, said the sport is a huge time commitment. He works out the horses twice a day, and trains about 90 minutes in the gym in six times a week to be in top shape.
"We have to take care of our bodies as well as the horses' bodies," he said. "Some people think polo and think leisurely riding around. It's like a hockey game. You come out physically and mentally spent."
It paid off Wednesday. His team won 20-19 over Cornell, in a shootout for a chance to play Rosser and CSU for the title.