COLLEGE STATION -- The Texas A&M equestrian team will head to Waco early Wednesday morning in preparation for competition at the 2008 Varsity Equestrian National Championships (VENC).
The 2008 VENC will be held for the second year in a row at the Heart O’ Texas Fair Complex. The show will run from April 17-19 and will decide the team national champions in hunter seat and western competition as well as the overall team title. For the first time ever, individual national champions will be declared in each of the four disciplines: fences, flat, horsemanship, and reining.
“We are looking forward to competing once again in Waco,” A&M head coach Tana Rawson said. “There is going to be some extremely tough competition this year which should make for an exciting national championship. All the teams have prepared long and hard the entire year for these few days. This can be a stressful time of year which can really challenge a team but I believe we are more than ready for that challenge.”
Last season, the Aggies finished second in the overall team race to South Carolina. The runner-up finish was the best in the overall standings by A&M since winning the inaugural event in 2002. The overall team title is determined based on the finishes by the hunter seat and western teams in their respective tournaments.
The hunter seat team brings a school-best No. 2 ranking and arguably the best collection of talented and experienced riders in the school’s history into their tournament after posting a 10-4 record during the regular season. The English riders have earned multiple victories over Baylor and Kansas State as well as first-ever wins over SEC powers Auburn and Georgia this season.
“We are really looking forward to this year's championship show,” A&M hunter seat coach Linzy Woolf said. “Our hunter seat team is far stronger than where we were at this time last year. I feel that each of our riders are prepared and know what it's going to take to win the national championship.”
Thanks to its’ No. 2 seed, the hunter seat team has earned a bye in the first round of the tournament. The Aggies will face the winner of the (7) Kansas State vs. (10) Delaware State match-up. A&M has a 2-1 record against Kansas State this year and is 3-2 all-time against the Wildcats. They have yet to face Delaware State in the varsity format. The hunter seat squad will begin competing at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
A&M’s equitation on the flat riders have made incredible progress from a season ago, becoming one of the most successful disciplines on the team. The group has posted a 10-4 record and brings the most collegiate experience of any the four riding categories into the championships for the Aggies.
Senior Lindsey Lawrence (College Station) is the winningest hunter seat rider on the A&M team this year, having produced an impressive 10-3-1 flat record and one MVP honor. Fellow senior Ashlie Soderstrom (Lake Oswego, Ore.) has earned an A&M best 18 victories on the flat since the team went varsity a year ago and brings considerable IHSA and VENC national championship experience into the year’s most important show. Sophomore Brittney Dodson (Amarillo) has made a name for herself on the flat this season with an 8-5 record and was the highest-ranking A&M flat rider considered for the individual national title field by the VENC selection committee (second alternate).
The Aggie fence riders have been led by a blend of youth and experience in their second year of varsity showing. Senior co-captain Katie Henion (Austin) will end one of the most illustrious English careers in A&M’s nine-year history this weekend. Henion has been the Aggies’ top fence rider over the last two years, compiling a 21-10 mark, and has the most collegiate national championship experience of anyone on the entire A&M equestrian team. Sophomore Lindsay Smith (West Friendship, Md.) has gone stride-for-stride with Henion this season, posting an identical 9-5 mark over fences and has earned a hunter team-best three Most Valuable Rider awards. Sophomore Kristi Waldal (Battle Ground, Wash.) is just one step behind Henion and Waldal, having compiled an 8-6 mark, and is coming off a stirring team-victory-clinching score of 84 on the road against TCU.
“I really wish that we had the opportunity to show more than four people per event because of the depth of our team this year,” Woolf said. “We have more than four people in each event that would be able to help us bring home the championship title. I have really seen our hunter seat team unite and rally behind one another this year. I think that's what has helped get us to this point and what will carry us through to the end.”
The Aggie western team will be looking to defend its second VENC national title in the past three years. Since going to the tournament format in 2006, A&M has been the best in the country, putting up a 5-1 record. Last season, the Aggies found themselves down 2-0 in all three rounds of competition but rallied in each match, all the way to the national title.
The Aggies enter the western tournament with the No. 4 seed, which also earns them a bye in the first round. A&M will face the winner of the (5) Kansas State vs. (12) Tennessee-Martin match on Thursday afternoon. Like the hunter seat team, the Aggies are 2-1 against Kansas State this season and have never faced UT-Martin. The western team will begin its title defense at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday.
A&M’s horsemanship riders have produced the top winning percentage of any of the four disciplines this season by going 10-3 with two of those losses coming due to tiebreakers. The horsemanship team returns all but one of their riders that were a part of the national championship squad from a season ago and has added even more talent to an already potent mix.
“I feel that we are headed to the championship with a stronger team than last year,” horsemanship coach Beth Bass said. “We are more prepared both mentally and physically. All of our competitors have stepped up their game and we have had to follow suit. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for us but I believe that has better prepared us mentally for the challenges that await us this week.”
Sophomore Caroline Gunn (Greensburg, Ind.) has been as good as anyone in the country in horsemanship for the past two seasons and this year she will get the opportunity to show it not only in the team tournament but in a first-ever individual national championship tournament. Gunn has posted a 10-2-1 record this season making her 22-4-2 over the last two years. She has won Most Valuable Rider honors at a 50 percent clip in career, taking home the award in 10 of her 20 non-VENC victories.
“Caroline has been my most consistent athlete this season and has worked hard to earn her individual spot,” Bass said. “She is constantly pushing herself and her teammates to improve. It is an honor to have a rider chosen the first year the individual competition is being offered.”
Junior co-captain Sibyl Parsons (Combine) has been nearly as tough to knock off as Gunn, having put together a record of 17-7-3 over the last two seasons. Randi Standley (Madisonville) has come in as a true freshman and made an already deadly horsemanship group even more difficult to beat. Standley has put together an 8-4 record, which includes a seven-show win streak that equals the best of anyone on the entire team this season.
The Aggie reiners were the group that stepped up to the plate and grabbed last season’s western national title with a 4-0 sweep over South Carolina. All four riders from last season’s title-winning team return while, like horsemanship, even more talent has been added to the mix.
Junior transfer Genna Fishgold (Scottsdale, Ariz.) has stepped in and made a tough reining group even better. Fishgold, who spent two years at Colorado State, has been A&M’s most successful reiner this season, putting together a 9-4 record. She is also riding a six-match win streak, the longest of any in the reining group this season. Junior Tonna Brooks (Newberg, Ore.) and sophomore Maggie Gratny (Leavenworth, Kan.) both bring winning records into the VENC show as well. Brooks has put together a 6-4 record in reining this season in addition to scoring a big win at No. 1 seed TCU in horsemanship on April 3. Gratny has been the Aggies’ winningest reiner over the past two seasons by putting together a 19-9 record with seven MVP awards as an underclassman.