For 12 teams, the dream for a National Championship is still alive. However, by the end of the day on Saturday, only one team will remain.
The 2017 NCEA National Championships begin on Thursday with the first round, and features four meets. The winners of each will advance to take on one of the four top seeds who received a bye to Friday's quarterfinals.
Last year, TCU was the surprise of the championships as the sixth-seeded Horned Frogs advanced all the way to the final meet. However, they were upended by Auburn, which picked up its fourth National Championship.
A preview of each of the four opening meets on Thursday is below.
(5) Texas A&M vs. (12) Delaware State
Texas A&M enters the national championships with a 9-5 overall record. As a fifth seed, the Aggies just missed out on a bye, but there are pros and cons to both sides, according to head coach Tana McKay. On one hand, the teams that ride on Thursday get to experience the pressure that comes with performing on the biggest stage. That could give a team an advantage over a squad preparing for its first meet on Friday. Of course, there's also an advantage to having one less meet to prepare for in the quest for a national title.
The Aggies will face 12th-seeded Delaware State on Thursday, and are coming off a 12-8 victory over South Carolina in the consolation of the SEC Championships. Texas A&M was narrowly edged by Auburn in the opening round, but McKay is confident in her team moving forward.
"Obviously the (SEC) championships didn't go the way that we had hoped, but we had a good finish on that Saturday," McKay said. "We've just been continuing with that, knowing that we have to compete and can't take anything for granted on Thursday."
Delaware State enters the championships riding high. The Hornets came into the United Equestrian Conference Championships seeded fourth out of four teams. However, the hosts defeated Fresno State and SMU en route to a conference title. Both meets were incredibly close as the Fresno State match was decided on a re-ride while the Hornets needed to win the final ride of the SMU meet to force a tiebreaker, which they won.
Delaware State and Texas A&M met back in November with the Aggies coming away with a convincing home meet victory. However, the Hornets hope to keep the momentum they gained from the magical run in the UEC tournament.
"It's really mind over matter," Delaware State head coach Jennifer Ridgely said. "It's how calm you can be and how effective you can be. We've always kind of been the underdog, and we're trying to dispel that so that, 'Hey, we're just as good as everyone else.' We've proven that now."
The winner of this meet will advance to take on No. 4 seed Oklahoma State on Friday.
(6) South Carolina vs. (11) South Dakota State
The 6-11 matchup in the first round features two teams who are facing each other for the first time this season. South Carolina dropped two hard-fought battles in the SEC Championships, but was able to end the regular season strongly with two wins in its final three meets.
Gamecock head coach Boo Major wasn't happy with how her team started the conference tournament against Georgia. However, the team held a meeting before it faced Texas A&M in the consolation round, and the head coach was much more pleased with how her girls performed against the Aggies.
The Gamecocks are 5-3 this year against non-SEC competition, and with the winner of this meet facing third-seeded Auburn, Major is pleased with the first round pairing for her team.
"I like the fact that we're going up against a team that we haven't competed against," Major said.
Entering a late-February tournament in New Mexico, South Dakota State's two wins both came against Minnesota-Crookston. However, the Jackrabbits seemed to have saved their best performances for the end of the season.
South Dakota State dropped a close meet to TCU before pulling off an upset over host New Mexico State on a tiebreaker. In the regular season finale back in South Dakota, the Jackrabbits nearly pulled off another upset over SMU. The Mustangs were able to walk away with a win on a tiebreaker that was decided by less than 10 points, but South Dakota State still has momentum as it prepares for the Gamecocks.
(7) Fresno State vs. (10) New Mexico State
This matchup is unique in that it is the only one that features a battle of conference foes. The two UEC members have both enjoyed tremendous seasons, and both have dreams of making a run at the NCEA National Championships.
Fresno State is one of the more experienced teams in the country, and own wins over Auburn and Baylor, two teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the country at some point this year. The Bulldogs were bitten by the cinderella Hornets in the UEC championships, but hope to bounce back against another league foe.
Fresno State and New Mexico State met way back in the season opener with the Bulldogs coming away with a narrow victory.
For New Mexico State, the focus is on enjoying the experience of the national championships. It's important not to become wrapped up in all of the distractions. The Aggies dropped their last two regular season meets entering this week's championships, and Fresno State certainly has their attention.
The two squads are very familiar with each other. Fresno State won the inaugural UEC title in 2015, but the Aggies came back a year later to take it home the second season.
"They're definitely a team to take seriously," New Mexico State head coach Robin Morris-Walters said of the Bulldogs. "We have seen them this season and play them every year, so I'd call it a rivalry for sure."
The winner of this meet advances to play No. 2 seed Georgia.
(8) SMU vs. (9) TCU
Two Texas teams will battle it out in the 8-9 meet of the championships, and if the earlier meeting between the two teams is any indication, it could be an exciting match.
Tied at eight points apiece back in September, SMU freshman Haley Zimmerman won the final ride to hand the Mustangs an upset on the road. A lot has changed since that meet, but both teams feel they are riding well entering this week.
SMU tied for the best record in the UEC during the regular season, and started the year on a tear, winning three consecutive meets against Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State. The Mustangs were narrowly edged out by Delaware State in the conference title game.
Mustang head coach Carol Gwin and her team know it's a tough week preparing for the national championships. The key to success is staying focused and prepared. The room for error is extremely small when this time of year rolls around.
"My focus is just to keep our head in the game mentally," SMU head coach Carol Gwin said. "I think they've been riding great and practicing really well. I'm really happy with the team camaraderie. We just have to get there and do what we've been doing all year, and I think we'll be successful."
TCU has lost four consecutive meets entering its match against SMU, but that doesn't tell the story. The Horned Frogs have seasoned veterans like Molly Peddicord, Jayme Omand and Kari Hancock, but 13 freshmen on the roster means head coach Haley Schoolfield has also had to mix in young, inexperienced riders. Schoolfield has been pleased with the way her team has rode late in the season despite the defeats.
It's been an interesting mix of young and old this year, but the Horned Frogs are trying to rekindle the magic they had during last year's incredible run in the NCEA National Championships.
"Our returning seniors know it's possible," TCU head coach Haley Schoolfield said. "They've been preaching that to our younger riders that weren't there for that excitement. You just have to buckle down and go be a competitor and you can get it done."
The winner of this meet will face No. 1 seed Baylor.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 12
6 p.m. — Adequan NCEA Opening Cremony (Extraco Show Pavilion)
THURSDAY, APRIL 13 — First Round
Bracket — Competition
A — (8) SMU vs. (9) TCU
B — (5) Texas A&M vs. (12) Delaware State
C — (6) South Carolina vs. (11) South Dakota State
D — (7) Fresno State vs. (10) New Mexico State
9 a.m. — Thomas Moore Feed Reining (Brackets A, B, C, D • Extraco Coliseum)
9 a.m. — Equitation over Fences (Brackets C, D, A, B • Extraco Show Pavilion)
2 p.m. — Equitation on the Flat (Brackets C, D, A, B • Extraco Show Pavilion)
2:30 p.m. — Horsemanship (Brackets A, B, C, D • Extraco Coliseum)
FRIDAY, APRIL 14 — Quarterfinals
Bracket — Competition
E — (1) Baylor vs. A Winner
F — (4) Oklahoma State vs. B Winner
G — (3) Auburn vs. C Winner
H — (2) Georgia vs. D Winner
9 a.m. — Thomas Moore Feed Reining (Brackets E, F, G, H • Extraco Coliseum)
9 a.m. — Equitation over Fences (Brackets G, H, E, F • Extraco Show Pavilion)
2 p.m. — Equitation on the Flat (Brackets G, H, E, F • Extraco Show Pavilion)
2:30 p.m. — Horsemanship (Brackets E, F, G, H • Extraco Coliseum)
SATURDAY, APRIL 15 — Semifinals/Championship
Bracket — Competition
I — E Winner vs. F Winner
J — G Winner vs. I Winner
K — I Winner vs. J Winner
8:30 a.m. — Thomas Moore Feed Reining Semifinals (Brackets I, J • Extraco Coliseum)
8:30 a.m. — Equitation over Fences Semifinals (Brackets I, J • Extraco Show Pavilion)
11:00 a.m. — Horsemanship Semifinals (Brackets I, J • Extraco Coliseum)
11:00 a.m. — Equitation on the Flat Semifinals (Brackets I, J • Extraco Show Pavilion)
1:30 p.m. — Canadian Pacific Railways NCEA Championship Starting Line-ups Ceremony (Extraco Show Pavilion)
2 p.m. — Equitation on the Flat Championship (Extraco Show Pavilion)
3 p.m. — Horsemanship Championship (Extraco Coliseum)
4:30 p.m. — Thomas Moore Feed Reining Championship (Extraco Coliseum)
5:30 p.m. — Equitation over Fences Championship (Extraco Show Pavilion)
6:30 p.m. — Canadian Pacific Railways NCEA Crowning of Champions (Extraco Show Pavilion)