April 26, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -
“Rise up. Work Hard. Win Big.” The Auburn equestrian team’s motto for the 2012-13 season took the team as far as it could go, as Auburn was crowned the 2013 Hunt Seat and Overall National Champions.
“Everybody’s attitude was in it, and everything was about winning,” Auburn head coach Greg Williams said. “As soon as we got the Hunt Seat title, that brought our Western crew right back in. We couldn’t have been in a better situation to be up against our biggest adversary in such a worthy team as Georgia. I think we’re probably each other’s biggest rival, but in a healthy way. We won it pretty handily in overtime, so we were pleased.”
Having narrowly fallen to South Carolina in a heartbreaking meet at the 2013 SEC Equestrian Championships to finish as the runner-up, the Tigers had unfinished business to take care of at nationals. The No. 9 seed Western squad and the No. 4 seed Hunt Seat entered the national championships hungry to avenge the loss in the SEC Championship.
“I think when we fell a little short at SECs, it gave us something to prove,” Hunt Seat rider Lindsay Portela said. “It was nice to come away, not only winning, but proving to everybody that we deserved to win.”
“I think it makes you more hungry when you aren’t number one,” Hunt Seat senior Anna Becker added. “When you’re number one, you have a lot to prove, and it’s easier to fall from number one than to get there.”
The Western team defeated Baylor, 5-3, in the opening round of competition, but not after a superstitious scare during the pregame meal.
“The first day of Western we get a fortune cookie from our lunch, and mine said, ‘Failure will lead to success,’” Western rider Katsy Leeman said. “We all started panicking because we were like, ‘We don’t want to fail. Maybe it’s talking about SECs because we came so close there.’ I opened about three more cookies trying to find one that was better. I didn’t find one, so I just threw it away.”
Leeman’s fortune started to take shape on Friday, as Western fell to No. 1 seed Oklahoma State, 5-3, in what would be the Cowgirls’ toughest competition en route to the Western National Championship. It would be up to Hunt Seat to keep Auburn’s national championship dreams alive.
“After we lost to Oklahoma State, we knew that no matter what, it was going to an SEC school, so that was an honor,” Leeman said. “The coaches told us that if a lot of things went our way, we could still have a shot at the overall. We started playing with the brackets and looking at all of the things that had to happen for us to win it, and we just said, ‘If it’s meant to be, we’re going to win this.’”
Hunt Seat started off its title run with an 8-0 victory over South Dakota State to advance to the semifinals against No. 1 seed Baylor. The Tigers defeated the Bears, 5-3, and moved on to face SEC rival Georgia in the championship round.
“What was really great about that was the relationship between Auburn and Georgia,” Hunt Seat rider Quincy Hayes said. “We’re great competitors, and all of the girls have nothing but mutual respect for one another. I don’t think a lot of teams have that. I think Georgia and Auburn definitely have the biggest rivalry, but also the biggest respect for one another.”
The overall national championship would be decided based on the results of the Hunt Seat championship match. Auburn needed to win to force a ride-off with Georgia for the overall title.
“We’d been talking about it a lot after SECs at practices that we were going to be perfect at the things we could control and make sure we did our part because it’s horses, and things happen that you can’t control,” Hunt Seat coach Jessica Braswell said. “We had to be good enough so we could overcome any adversity that was thrown our way. I think they were extremely prepared going in, and I think they really did think they could win. They wanted it. They all went in and every single one of them rose to the occasion. That was great to see.”
Tied at 2-2 after equitation on the flat, Auburn took equitation over fences, 2-1, to take a 4-3 win over Georgia for the Hunt Seat National Championship. Freshman Hunt Seat rider Elizabeth Benson was a perfect 6-0 in three meets at the national championships, but wasn’t done just yet.
“We had just won the Hunt Seat national championship, and we were standing in the bleachers just laughing and crying and we were all really excited,” Benson said. “Braswell walked up, and she said, ‘I want you to enjoy this moment, but you’re not done, and we still have a couple more things to do.’ It was nerve-wracking, but we were ready.”
With four points left to decide the champion, Benson, along with Western riders Griffin Knight (horsemanship) and Cheyenne Cracraft (reining), represented Auburn in the final four rides. Benson won both her points to give Auburn a 2-1 lead going into the final event, where Cracraft sealed the championship in a 143.5-138.5 win.
“I think that winning Hunt Seat was special, but to win it overall just takes it to a whole new level,” fellow Western rider Indy Roper said. “We worked hard all year, and there are a lot of girls that don’t get the chance to sit in the saddle, and I think that this goes out to them. They put just as much work into it as everyone, and they deserve a ring and to do it overall, it’s just special for everyone.”
Auburn’s Western coach, Lisa Helfer, echoed Roper’s sentiments, and noted it was critical to stay positive and supportive of the Hunt Seat team after losing to Oklahoma State. Helfer was proud of the way Knight and Cracraft responded going into the ride-off.
“We knew it was going to happen if Hunt Seat beat Georgia,” Helfer said. “Based on how the points fell, we knew that had to happen. We just put it in our control. As long as Hunt Seat won, we would go forward. With our riders, we just picked the ones that were hot, the ones that were riding really well and the ones that we knew the judges loved. At the championship, Griffin really stepped up. She just had a confidence about her and an air the whole time she was showing. Then for Cheyenne to bring it all home, they just did a great job.”
Benson was named the championship MOP for both equitation on the flat and over fences having ridden undefeated at 8-0 the national championships. Auburn’s reining horse, Nic, was also named the championship MVP horse for reining.
As the Tigers collected their hardware and made the trip home to roll Toomer’s Corner, they reflected on a whirlwind competition and what it meant to have gone through so much and come so far.
“It’s been really great to win a national championship,” senior Casey Fowler said. “As seniors, we won it our sophomore year, and it was awesome to end up with another win under our belts. This group of girls won the national championship for all of us, and we really worked together as a team.”
“I think it was pretty surreal what we were able to accomplish,” Hayes added. “Overall, it was one of the most fantastic weekends I’ve ever had.”