2011 IHSA National Championships – A Preview to the Road to Lexington

Fairfield, CT — In poker it’s called re-shuffling the deck, and when the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) announced at the start of the 2010 semester that it had realigned its nine Zones to eight – changing the geography of its competitive regions and impacting coaching strategies – it promised to make the road to the 2011 IHSA National Championships, May 5-8, at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, an interesting one.

With Regional and Zone Championships, and Western Semi-Finals, still ahead for the 370-plus schools and more than 8,700 students competing this 2010-2011 season, a lot can happen between now and May. But with the close of the fall semester, team and individual performances are beginning to suggest where Nationals candidates might emerge.

Zone Hunter Seat Championships and Western Semi-Finals this spring represent the final step for qualifying IHSA teams and individuals. Each Region sends its top individual riders and one team to their respective Hunter Seat Zone Championship; at Zones, the top two individual riders and top two teams move on to Nationals.

On the Western side, three Semi-Finals determine who will advance to Nationals. Regions are randomly assigned a Semi-Final, sending their top two individual riders and top team; the resulting top four individuals and top three teams advance to Nationals.

Shakespeare wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The road to Lexington offers especially high stakes for its defending team champions. For the hunter seat division, defense of the Collegiate Cup goes to coach Cindy “Built Ford Tough” Ford and her Skidmore College Thoroughbreds (Saratoga Springs, NY). No stranger to IHSA team titles, Skidmore earned five national championships in nine years (1990, 1991, 1995, 1996 and 1999) but a team win had eluded them until 2010, marking Skidmore’s first IHSA Collegiate Cup of the decade.

Under head coach Cindy Morehead, and assistant coach, NRHA and AQHA Congress Hall of Fame inductee, Clark Bradley, The University of Findlay (OH) Oilers went to Lexington in 2010 to successfully defend their 2009 AQHA High Point Team trophy. A dominant Western force, in 2001, Findlay became the first school in IHSA history to win national championships in both Western and Hunter Seat, and won additional Western team championships in 2005 and 2007. They’ll look to Lexington 2011 for the ultimate cowboy hat trick: a three-peat sweep of the high point team title.

Neither IHSA coaches nor students can predict the future, but from Zone to Zone, their voices reflect optimism, if not certain prediction, as to who might represent their school in Kentucky this spring.

Zone 1 (MA, ME, NH, VT)

At the start of the year, three-time Collegiate Cup champions, Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, MA) and coach C.J. Law were leading their Zone’s Region 3 standings ahead of consistent rival, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Mount Holyoke also produced two leaders in high point rider standings: JoJo Gutfarb and Lindsey Sceats (the 2010 IHSA Nationals defending Cacchione Cup champion).

“For Zone 1, Region 2, University of New Hampshire leads University of Vermont, and Endicott, the only new school in our region,” said UNH coach, Chris Keim. “UNH has never won its Region, but has been reserve for the past two seasons.”

Keim added that UVM hunt seat rider, Sophie Allen, leads teammate (and last year’s Zone 1 Region 2 Cacchione Cup winner) Reese Green, by a narrow margin. “Last year, Green and Carolyn Kelsey (UNH) were our representatives at Nationals, in the Cacchione Cup and Intermediate Flat classes, respectively.”

For a traditionally hunt seat region, real energy has been coming out of its Western teams:

The Mount Holyoke Western team hosted its first two IHSA shows and came out on top – twice!” said MHC captain, Sarah Zabak. “Putting on our first shows were no easy feat, but the team came away with eleven first- and second-place individual finishes, and high point team for both shows. I’m proud of how hard this team has worked and how far we have come.”

“This year was full of change for us, with nine riders new to IHSA,” added UMass-Amherst assistant Western team captain, Meghan Gennings. “We are excited to have an Open division this year with our captain, Amanda Golembeski, leading high point rider standings. It is amazing to see horses go full tilt in real reining patterns around the arena at Hadley Farm.”

UMass also had a Western coaching change, welcoming University of Findlay alum, Amy Hollowell, and adding more schooling under Connecticut trainer, T. R. Potts. “We are working diligently to send the team to semi-finals and maybe Nationals,” said Gennings. “Every year, the team race gets more competitive, and with ‘real’ reining horses now available, we hope to truly compete with other Zones.”

Zone 2 (CT, NY, and Ontario, CAN)

Amy Kriwitsky, hunter seat head coach for Trinity College (Hartford, CT) said, “I don’t think Trinity has sent a rider to Nationals but stranger things have happened!” This may be the year. Open rider, Nicole Pucci, leads her region while teammate, first-year rider Jen Dorfman, has nearly pointed out of Intermediate Flat and Fences.

“Jen was High Point Rider three times in six shows,” Kriwitsky said. “We’re looking forward to maybe a trip to Kentucky.”

“We’ve had an amazing season,” added Trinity co-captain, Pucci. “Never has Trinity been this high in team rankings. We have a terrific coach in Amy. We already have team members qualified for Regionals.”

“The Zone realignment helped, but our success is mostly due to our team mentality,” Pucci added. “Abbie Smitka, the other team captain, and I made sure to change the tone of the team, recruiting freshmen who are full of energy. The horses and facility at Oak Meadow are amazing, and that too, has fired up the team.”

Giving Trinity a run for its money has been the Connecticut College team, which rides out of the Mystic Valley Hunt Club, under coach Richard Luckhardt. Conn College Walk-Trot and Walk-Trot-Canter riders took an early lead at a University of Connecticut show, and the team broke a three-way tie with Trinity and UConn after the Over Fences division. “It was the perfect end to a strong show season,” said Luckhardt.

Zone 3 (PA, NJ, lower NY)

“Lafayette College (Easton, PA), leads over Kutztown University,” said Erin Githens, co-president for Zone 3 Region 4. “Although Lafayette has a healthy lead, you never count out Kutztown. They had a high-scoring show in (the fall) and if they do it again, they may make Lafayette a little nervous at the top!”

“Behind Kutztown is Rutgers University of New Jersey. Rutgers has strong riders. If they pick the right people on the right day, they are always a threat. Out of six fall shows,” Githens concluded, “four teams won High Point, so it’s still anyone’s game.”

Among hunter seat riders, Danielle Miranda, a junior from Lafayette College, leads over Kutztown senior, Jess Benner. “Jess started the season with an early lead,” said Githens, “but Danielle has learned that the key to Cacchione Cup success is consistency.” Hot on their heels is Lehigh University junior, Maggie Gordon (fifth at the 2010 Nationals in Intermediate Fences). “She’s made up a lot of ground. All three are team captains and great leaders in our region.”
“Regardless of who finishes on top,” Githens said, “it’s been great competition.”

Zone 3 lost West Virginia University but gained 2009 IHSA team National Champions (and currently undefeated), Centenary College. Don’t count them out to put forth a powerhouse effort to reclaim the team crown. Anchoring Centenary’s chances may be senior, and AQHA high point rider, Randi Cashman (whose dad, Peter, coaches for the West Point/U.S. Military Academy team).

“Heather Clark and I are extremely pleased with the success our team has had so far,” said Centenary head coach, Michael Dowling. “We have significantly stronger riders in the upper levels. We are also pleased to see other schools in our region riding strong, making for good competition.”

“We’re thrilled with how passionate and determined our team is,” added Centenary assistant coach Clark. “It shows in our results.” In November, at Briarwood Farm, Centenary scored a perfect point card (49 points), and senior Marissa Cohen established her lead as high point hunter seat rider/Cacchione Cup standings.

Githens predicts her Zone’s “players” to watch are Pennsylvania State University (Region 1), Delaware Valley College (Region 2), Centenary (Region 3) and Lafayette (Region 4).

Janis Groomes, Gettysburg College coach and Zone 3, Region 1 president said, “The top schools so far are Penn State, Dickinson College, and Gettysburg.” Penn State claims the top two high point riders, Kristen Cassone and Devon Yacka, but don’t discount third-ranked Julie Weisz from Gettysburg.

Zone 4 (Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, lower Pennsylvania)

Brittany Hill captains the University of Mary Washington (Fredericksburg, VA) hunt seat team and, like any good leader, she’s taking the reins on her team’s destiny.

“Goucher College is leading and we are in second place. In February, UMW has two back-to-back shows where we plan to regain our team lead, and in rider points for the Cacchione Cup,” said Hill, who, at the close of the fall season, was tied with Karli Postel from Goucher for Cacchione Cup points.

“We plan to advance to Kentucky,” she said. “We have a strong team and a good shot for a top spot. We have a couple of riders that have pointed out so, (fingers crossed), we will send individuals, as well as a team, to Nationals. Either way, UMS will be represented in Kentucky, no doubt.”

University of Delaware may lie east of the Mississippi, but produced one of the top four individuals in Open Reining to go to the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Collegiate Reining Championships last June — Jillian Staurowsky – and can’t be overlooked when Western riders take to the arena.

Zone 5 (AL, AR, FL, GA, MI, NC, SC, TN, portions of KY and VA)

According to Julie Comforti, admission representative for Savannah College of Art and Design, SCAD was leading Zone 5, Region 3, and with just a few shows to go, the College of Charleston and University of Central Florida remain in “a close race,” as do SCAD teammates, Kels Bonham and Caroline Ingalls, who are neck and neck in their Cacchione Cup standings.
University of Central Florida hunt seat captain Katie Taylor acknowledged that SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) is the leading team in the region, but UCF claims high point rider: Katie Taylor. University of Miami has reserve high pointer, Claire Fisher.

“The UCF, Georgia State University, and University of Miami shows (in the spring) are going to get interesting for the top three (SCAD, College of Charleston, and UCF) and for how they perform on a non-home team advantage,” said Taylor.

“As for UCF, we are shooting to send riders to Lexington. We have qualified three riders in four classes for Regionals, which will be hosted by UF on March 12 in Orlando. We have eight more with strong potential to point out by end of year.”

The University of the South-Sewanee coach, Megan Taylor, said her hunter seat team has had a “great season.” With four out of eight shows completed, Sewanee was high point team each time, building a strong lead in Zone 5, Region 1 standings.

Sewanee co-captain, Lindsay Maxwell, has led the high point rider board and hopes to qualify for a third Cacchione Cup at Nationals (having qualified in 2008 for Los Angeles and 2010 at Lexington).

Among Western teams, Murray State University is undefeated in Zone 5 Region 1, sweeping high point titles at all three of its Kentucky campus fall shows.

University of Georgia may again have a reiner to watch in Sarah Locker, who was among the four collegiate riders chosen to compete at last June’s NRHA Collegiate Reining Championships. Another Georgia reiner, Alexandra Jones of Berry College, also went to the NRHA championships so anticipate some sweet performances from the land of peaches as Lexington draws closer.

Zone 6 (MI, OH, portions of KY, PA, WV, and Ontario, CAN)

Coach Heather Pinnick, from Miami University (Ohio), eyes her strongest Western challenge coming from top-ranked Ohio State University. MU is second in team standings, followed by Ohio University.

“The top three high point Western riders are Austin Griffith (Ohio State), Jesse Gentile (Ohio State) and Alissa Trucco (Ohio University),” said Pinnick. Gentile also went to the 2010 NRHA Collegiate Reining Championships.

Among hunt seat teams, a triple threat remains among Miami University, Otterbein University, and Ohio University. “Leading the region for high point rider is Jamie Donovan from Miami,” said Pinnick. Followed by Lauren Cechini from Ohio State University, and Sara Dziegielewski, from Ohio University.

Randi Heathman, equestrian recruitment/marketing coordinator for Albion College said, “We had the advantage/disadvantage of a five-week winter break, with classes not resuming until January 18 – tricky when you consider that hunt seat and Western teams started meeting January 16. Results-wise, we’ve been mid-pack in the team rankings for both hunt seat and Western, but have several individuals set to make Regionals appearances.”

Zone 7 (IA, IL, IN, KS, LA, MI, MO, ND, SD, OK, TX, WI)

According to team captain, Sarah Bernhoft, one of the largest point leads in the nation (56 points at press time) has belonged to University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a real battle for reserve emerging between University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s College.

“We are hosting the Regional and Zones championships, and looking forward to putting on a smooth, and well-run show,” said Bernhoft. “Right now, we are focusing on narrowing down candidates for the Zones team. We were proud to be the only Midwest team invited to the Winter Tournament of Champions (and are optimistic about a Nationals-bound finish at Zones, but will continue to work hard.”

Wisconsin could seek to make its mark in 2011 much like prior season Zone-mate, Texas State University at San Marcos, which had never advanced a rider to IHSA Nationals prior to the 2009-2010 season.

On the Western side, South Dakota State University produced one of last year’s NRHA Collegiate Reining Championship contenders, Helen Lauth. Lauth, who was elected in 2009 as National Reining Horse Youth Association (NRHyA) secretary, was only a sophomore when she qualified for the collegiate reining title, and could return to Lexington as a junior for a second title ‘go.’

Zone 8 (AZ, CA, CO, ID, MT, NE, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA, and portions of KS, OK)

For Oregon State, 2009- 2010 marked the first time the school qualified Western and hunt seat teams for Nationals. While Oregon’s Western team was making its fifth consecutive appearance at the year-end championships, it was the first trip for Oregon’s hunt seat team. They’ll be seeking to repeat a trip to Lexington.

They may have to get past Kansas first. “The hard work of the Colby Community College team has paid off,” said coach Shanda Mattix. “We’ve qualified Anna Shurter and Rachael Kruse for Regionals.” More first place performances are attributed to CCC riders Liz Kennedy, Misty Lethcho, and Morgan Harms.

Utah State University produced last year’s NRHA and AQHA champion at Nationals, Jason Romney, who parlayed his 2010 Lexington performances into a slot at the NRHA Collegiate Championships. It was the second time in four years that Romney, who started showing halter horses at age seven, and trains at USU under coach Rebecca Lewis, had qualified for the IHSA Nationals, and now that he knows his way there, he could make the trip down Cigar Lane again.

Lexington, Here We Come

Sportswriter Grantland Rice said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” and for IHSA coaches and riders, each step in the journey is a winning experience.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for students who otherwise cannot afford to be around horses, plus learning life lessons, and making incredible friendships,” said rider Victoria Guzman.

Rider Maggie Stormont added, “IHSA gives riders, many of whom have spent their lives competing in a difficult sport, a chance to compete in college.”

And — with hard work and a little luck — the chance to ride for their school at one of the most prestigious equestrian venues in America and host site of last year’s World Equestrian Games: the Kentucky Horse Park.

However the deck shuffles out, each rider, coach, and horse have already qualified for a place in IHSA history. Good luck as the road to Lexington continues!

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