Journal on the Road

University of Georgia Wins

April 21, 2010

The University of Georgia defended its title as overall national equestrian April 18 at the 2010 Varsity Equestrian Championships in Waco, Texas.

By Larri Jo Starkey

The University of Georgia equestrian team triumphantly claims its third national title at the 2010 Varsity Equestrian National Championships. Go to the bottom of this post to see more photos from the 2010 VENC.

The three-time champion’s title didn’t come easily for Georgia. The Bulldogs claimed the championship in the English bracket, while Texas A&M University claimed the western championship.

Tied for the overall championship in the NCAA emerging sport, the two teams had to battle the win out in a “sudden death” finale.

Each team picked one rider for each of the disciplines: equitation on the flat, horsemanship, equitation over fences and reining.

On the same horse, the riders from each team rode the same pattern for the same judges, who scored those patterns. The rider with the higher pattern score earned a point for her team. The first team to three points would win the overall championship.

Georgia won the first point in equitation on the flat. A&M scored the second point in horsemanship. Georgia claimed the third point in equitation over fences, and the Aggies picked up the fourth point in reining, leaving the two teams tied again.

As the tension rose in the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum, chief steward Larry Alcorn was all smiles.

“I think it’s great,” he says.

The tie was settled by the raw scores, putting Georgia’s team ahead by just a few points. It was a great end to college competition for the 14 seniors who graduate in May, according to Georgia equestrian coach Meghan Boenig. Their enthusiasm has made the year and the team special, she says.

“It feels fabulous,” Meghan says. “It’s their chemistry. It’s absolutely hunt seat and western combined, because you can’t do one without the other. This was a tough, tough championship, and it continued to build day after day. We were the ones able to come out victorious. Texas A&M, Auburn, all these schools are here raising the bar every single year.”

She says the sudden death format might have been exciting for the fans, but for the coaches, it was nerve-wracking.

“The riders were great,” she says. “We started off with Michelle Morris and a fabulous flat score that set us up well and gave us confidence – a very good ride.”

Texas A&M, the runner-up in the overall championship, rode for the western championship against an enthusiastic Kansas State University team with loud supporters in the stands.

It wasn’t enough to stand against Texas A&M’s sweep of the horsemanship points for the second year in a row. Consistency is the key to that success, says A&M horsemanship coach Beth Bass.

“The riders are their own worst critics,” Beth says. “I can’t ask more of them than they ask of themselves. They help each other out. They’re one team.”

That assertion held true even in the individual horsemanship finals, which pitted Texas A&M freshman Carey Nowacek against two-time defending individual champion Caroline Gunn, also an Aggie.

Carey and Caroline rooted for each other during the complex horsemanship pattern, with Caroline riding sixth in the draw for her team and then last for herself.

“I thought it was my last collegiate ride,” Caroline says. “(At the end of the pattern), all I had to do was stop and back. All I could think was, ‘Just wait until you finish before you start bawling.’ I barely made it. Then everybody started crying.”

As her teammates joined her in tears, the scores were announced. Caroline and Carey had tied. At first they thought they could share the championship but then found out they had to ride it off. They drew a new horse and prepared to ride the same pattern.

“We didn’t want to go again,” Caroline says. “But you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to give it your all.”

Neither of the students had ridden either their final-round horse or their ride-off horse before.

“It was a true test,” Carey says.

In that second ride, Caroline scored a 150 and Carey scored a 147.5, giving Caroline her third individual title.

In the reining finals, KSU rider Tara Hallan scored a point on “Dillon,” bringing the purple-clad fans to their feet, but the other reining points went to A&M, giving KSU the reserve championship in the western bracket.

In the reining individual finals, senior Aggie Maggie Gratny defeated New Mexico State University’s Rebecca McReynolds.

“I’ve always been so close every year,” Maggie says, “and this year I was (seeded) No. 1, and I really wanted it.”

An NCAA official was on hand to watch the part of the four days of tough competition. Karen Morrison works on gender equity issues for the NCAA, particularly the emerging sports division.

“Equestrian has been an emerging sport for women for almost 11 years, and we are hopeful that we can get it to the point that it can be an NCAA championship sport,” Karen says. “It would take us getting to 40 or more Varsity (Equestrian) programs. We’re at about 23 Division I and II right now.”

Four other sports, bowling, rowing, ice hockey and water polo, have gone through the emerging sports program to become championship sports. Karen says Varsity Equestrian needs more participation from Division III colleges as well as additional colleges to accredit their programs.

“Mostly we need to keep getting programs that are really treated like Varsity now or very close to it to go ahead and make the move (to Varsity) so we can get toward that goal of 40,” Karen says. “I’ve not been to one of these events before, and the morning’s been great competition. It’s been very close, very tense, and it’s great to see the student-athletes.”

College alumni who would like to see their universities in a Varsity Equestrian program should encourage their schools athletic directors to consider the change, Karen advises.

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