Waco, TX- As everyone around the country is celebrating the holiday season, equestrian coaches around the NCEA are evaluating their teams and preparing for the stretch run that begins in January.
After wrapping up competition in November, NCEA teams go more than a month without riding in a live competition. The break is a time for recuperating, recruiting, final exams, and looking back at the completed fall schedule, which is exactly what we’ll do in this article.
Halfway through the season, there are two undefeated teams that currently top the NCEA rankings. Georgia comes in at No. 1 after putting together a 6-0 record that also includes a 3-0 mark in the ultracompetitive Southeastern Conference.
“These athletes came together and wanted to continue the tradition of working, being united and focusing on putting our best effort in today so that tomorrow takes care of itself,” Georgia head coach Meghan Boenig said. “Having said all that, I don’t think they’re finished yet.”
The undefeated record is particularly impressive when you recognize the fact that the Bulldogs played just two of their six meets during the fall at home. Boenig has been pleased with how many riders have contributed during the fall semester. Both on the Western and Hunt Seat side, the Bulldogs have had freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors all step up for the team.
That consistency and balance has played a huge role in Georgia remaining undefeated after the fall portion of the schedule.
“Leadership is key, work ethic is key,” Boenig added. “Knowing that all these things are going to be equally hard and more challenging next semester. I think we have to continue to grow and they all realize that so no one’s head is getting too big. They know there is more of the journey to go.”
Staying in the SEC, defending national champion Texas A&M is right behind Georgia with a 2-1 conference mark and 6-2 overall record. The Bulldogs won a home meet against Texas A&M during the fall, but the No. 3 Aggies will get a chance at redemption for the final regular season meet in March. No. 5 Auburn remains within striking distance in the SEC while South Carolina will look to turn around its season after posting a 1-4 record in the fall.
Coming in at No. 2 in the final NCEA ranking of the fall is United Equestrian Conference foe SMU. The ranking is a program record for SMU, and it’s also the first time that a team outside the SEC or Big 12 is ranked inside the top three.
“We’ve been winning, and that’s what it’s all about,” SMU head coach Carol Gwin said. “Coming out of the fall undefeated and being ranked second is really groundbreaking for our program, and I’m really excited about that.”
The Mustangs entered winter break with a perfect 5-0 record and ended the fall with two wins on the road against Delaware State and UT-Martin. They have also already beaten all three Big 12 teams. The five straight wins are another program record for the Mustangs.
With the history being made at SMU, it’s important for the athletes to keep their heads grounded and realize that the season doesn’t end in December. There is still a grueling spring schedule to take on, and the Mustangs want to make a run in the postseason as well.
“That’s what we’re going to have to work on this spring is that you’re only as good as your last competition,” Gwin said. “I think that they’ve shown a really good work ethic this fall. It’s been nice for me to see a lot of individuals do well, not just a couple of superstars that are pulling the team behind them.”
The UEC has always been competitive, and despite SMU’s historic run, the conference race is still wide open. Both No. 6 Fresno State and No. 8 UT-Martin are just a half game back of the Mustangs. South Dakota State and Delaware State could also make things interesting with a strong spring season.
UT-Martin’s early success is worth touching on due to the fact that the Skyhawks have such a young team.
“I’m extremely pleased with our performance this fall,” UT-Martin head coach Meghan Cunningham said. “We had 22 freshmen new to our team, so there was a lot of unknowns and unexpected things. I think for as young as we are, we fared well during our first fall season together.”
The Skyhawks fared well indeed as they finished with a 2-3 overall record and 2-1 UEC mark. The No. 8 ranking is the highest in program history for UT-Martin. The Skyhawks had two riders of the month in November, and both were freshmen. Abbie Hopkins was the Equitation Over Fences Rider of the Month while Tess Baumann took home Horsemanship honors.
“Not only do we have a great group that has stepped into the arena as freshmen, but we’ve expanded the depth of our roster tremendously and it’s provided us with some more options that we haven’t had in the last couple of years,” Cunningham said.
Over in the Big 12, No. 4 Oklahoma State currently leads a tight conference race. The Cowgirls (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) ended the fall with two consecutive wins, including a huge one over Texas A&M.
“Especially going into the long break like we have in our season, you always want to go out on a high note as opposed to going out on a loss and having to think about that for a month,” Oklahoma State head coach Larry Sanchez said.
Near the end of October, Oklahoma State sported a 1-2 record after two consecutive losses. However, the Cowgirls regrouped and haven’t lost since.
“You really learn the makeup of your team after a loss or after things don’t go the way that you had planned,” Sanchez said. “I really liked what I saw in their response to the two close losses that we had. The girls saw that we had the potential to win those with just a couple points. It was really good to learn about my team in that way.”
No. 7 Baylor is just one game back of OSU while No. 9 TCU is just two back halfway through. It’ll be an interesting race in the spring as Oklahoma State will have to travel to both conference foes for meets.
NCEA competition resumes in late January, so be sure to stay tuned to collegiateequestrian.com for updates on your favorite teams!