Garrison Forest School has experienced plenty of success in one particular sport. The Grizzlies have won 13 national championships since beginning competition nearly four decades ago, are known around the country for their exemplary program, but have remained a bit of a secret back home in Owings Mills.
That’s because Garrison Forest, an all-girls school, excels in polo, which remains largely a niche sport. The school won its latest Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship last spring, edging the Maryland Polo Club, 12-11, in the title match in Charlottesville, Va.
The Grizzlies run a unique, hybrid program. Garrison Forest competes against girls and boys at the high school level as well as college teams, the reason they’ll take road trips to schools like Virginia, Yale and Cornell.
Coach Jenny Schwartz said they play mostly girls and women, along with a variety of club teams that are not officially affiliated with a particular school but can represent an area. In fact, Garrison Forest is one of just two high schools in the United States that offers polo – the Culver Academies in Indiana is the other.
“In the polo world, we’re known,” Garrison Forest athletic director Traci Davis said. “We couldn’t be more proud of our girls.”
The Garrison Forest program was started in 1979 by Dan Colhoun, who is active in the polo world and whose daughters (Julie Colhoun Deford, ’79 and Martha Colhoun Williams, ’86) played, as did both granddaughters (Lilly Deford, ’06 and Kate Williams, currently a senior).
Schwartz also played polo at Garrison Forest and helped the Grizzlies win national championships in 2009 and 2011, their last before 2017. She recently took over from longtime coach Cindy Halle, who won eight titles, and Schwartz wants to keep the program playing at the same high level.
“I’ve only felt the pressure to make the program the best it can be and uphold the reputation that Garrison Forest has,” said Schwartz, who oversees the polo program full time. “Winning the national championship is always the end goal, but I’m more focused on bringing out talent in all of the girls, and that’s really my main focus.”
The Grizzlies play three-on-three arena polo, hold home matches on campus and compete in U.S. Polo’s Interscholastic Division. Each match has four “chukkers,” or “chukkas,” which are much like four quarters in a basketball game and last seven-and-a-half minutes apiece. The team that scores the most goals wins.
Garrison Forest, which has 557 students in preschool through 12th grade, will play about 25 matches during the season, which began on Nov. 3 with a 22-5 victory over Virginia-based Battlefield Park Polo Club.
Overall, some 24 polo teams in the United States and Canada play a tournament season starting in the fall, and they compete to qualify for the national tournament.
Besides Garrison Forest and the Maryland Polo Club, the other teams in last spring's competition were the Central Coast/Santa Barbara (Calif.) Polo Club, Toronto Polo Club and the Midland (Texas) Polo Club.
Garrison Forest captain Hannah Reynolds said she’ll never forget the thrill of victory that came with defeating the Maryland Polo Club in the finale.
“The game was a nail-biting [experience] as the arena felt like it was the Super Bowl,” Reynolds said. “The crowd was roaring and feet were banging against the boards. It was nothing that we have ever encountered before.”
A big question is how the Grizzlies have remained so good for so long. Garrison Forest starts seeing if students are interested in the sport at an early age, and polo counts as a physical education credit.
In fact, the school is equine-heavy, with the D. and J. Smith Equestrian Center, two full equipped barns with heated wash stalls, the Sheridan Riding Center for polo, two large outdoor rings, a dressage ring, more than 15 paddocks for private and group turnouts, plus two school-owned rigs and van service for shows and events.
Schwartz said the school fields a varsity and two junior varsity polo teams, plus middle and lower school students also get to play. After her time at Garrison Forest, Schwartz went to Virginia Tech and started a polo club there as a freshman, playing one year in college but coaching all four. She was thrilled to return home this year.
“It means everything,” Schwartz said. “It’s been my dream to come back here, and it is such an incredible program and any polo industry professional’s dream to have a job like this.”
Assistant coach Kaycie Campbell agreed that introducing girls to the sport early on can aid Garrison Forest in channeling talent to the varsity.
It might even get more people to notice the school’s success.
“It’s pretty amazing giving a fourth-grader a polo mallet and watching them strive to get that perfect shot,” Campbell said. “Also, we have such a great polo community here. We’re all a family here with polo, and once they come, they don’t want to leave.”