By: Kyle Heck
After months of regular-season competition and fighting for positioning, the entire season will come down to just three short days for 12 of the top college equestrian teams in the country.
The 2016 NCEA National Championship will officially begin on Thursday, April 14, at the Extraco Events Center in Waco, Texas, and only one team can go home as the one true National Champion.
To be able to participate in the event is something that every college equestrian team in the country strives toward all season long and everything that's done during the season is in preparation for a shot at winning a national title.
However, once you get to the National Championship, another level of focus and preparation is required to fight your way to the top of the college equestrian mountain.
"We've talked about the fact that it's always going to be a battle," Georgia head coach Meghan Boenig said. "This is never a simple journey. We have to be prepared to be error-free and to push everything and expect no easy path."
Boenig would know all about what it takes as Georgia has made the National Championship final each of the previous two years under the new format, which replaced the old, divided format and now resembles a regular-season meet where the Hunt Seat and Western teams compete together.
In fact, South Carolina has also joined SEC-rival Georgia in the final the past two years with both teams winning one National Championship each. The Gamecocks are the defending champions at Extraco Events Center, where Baylor hosts the event.
"We're very excited to be back at the Extraco Center again," NCEA Executive Director Leah Fiorentino said. "We're incredibly appreciative of Baylor University serving as the host institution. Without them, I'm not sure how we would be able to put on this type of a quality event."
If the past is any indication, there will be a lot of unpredictability at the National Championship. Under the new format, the top-seeded team has yet to come out on top. That's something that Auburn head coach Greg Williams, whose Tigers are the No. 1 seed this year, is aware of, but likes where his team is at after capturing the SEC Championship.
"Having that ring for this year is great and I think it takes a little bit of the pressure off," Williams said. "The National Championship is the biggest thing and that's what we want to win, but I think it does keep them from playing so desperately. They can just do what they've been doing."
All 12 teams participating in the National Championship are confident and optimistic about what can happen over the next few days with TCU head coach Haley Schoolfield echoing what most of her colleagues are also feeling.
"We feel like our team is in a really good place and performing well and we're looking forward to putting that to the test," Schoolfield said.
"This is the time of year that everyone looks forward to and works for all year long," added Oklahoma State head coach Larry Sanchez.
One of the most appealing things about the postseason in many sports is the fact that any team can win it all if they get hot at the right time. Equestrian is no different and that leaves the door open for every single team in the field.
"Nobody cares how you go in, it only matters how you come out," noted Baylor head coach Ellen White. "(Our team) knows this is what we've been working on all year long. Go in No. 3, go in No. 10, who cares? Come out No. 1."
For the 12 head coaches and their teams, the countdown is almost over and if you have the chance, witnessing the National Championship in person is a can't-miss-opportunity.
"We have the top 12 teams in the nation who are all planning to win a National Championship," Fiorentino said. "So the energy is high, the enthusiasm is above and beyond anything you would see in a dual competition. We get tremendous support from the community here in Waco with their spectators and the local folks that come over and watch and cheer. It's just a great environment."
Thursday, April 14 – Round 1 (8:30 a.m. CT)
(5) Texas A&M vs. (12) Fresno State
(6) TCU vs. (11) New Mexico State
(7) South Carolina vs. (10) SMU
(8) Kansas State vs. (9) Delaware State
Friday, April 15 – Quarterfinals (8:30 a.m. CT)
(1) Auburn vs. 8/9 Winner
(2) Georgia vs. 7/10 Winner
(3) Baylor vs. 6/11 Winner
(4) Oklahoma State vs. 5/12 Winner
Saturday, April 16 – Semifinals (8:30 a.m. CT)
Saturday, April 16 – Championship Final (2 p.m. CT)