Aug 15, 2013
"What is important to me is that we are capable of winning the national championship every year."
By Chelsea Zillner
They rose up. They worked hard. They won big.
The Auburn Equestrian Team ended the 2013 season in dramatic fashion, beating SEC rival Georgia in a ride-off to win Auburn's second national championship title in the past three seasons, and third overall under 18th-year head coach Greg Williams. Last season showcased one of the most successful teams in program history with wins over Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.
The Tigers feature a loaded roster entering the 2013-14 season, losing only two riders from the championship squad, and boasting one of the strongest teams in the country.
"More than anything, what I am looking for this year, is a team that can keep the mindset of winning," Williams said. "I think we have enough talent, but if you look through the years, every time we've won a national championship, it has been as a very unified team. We recruit that way, and it is very important to our success."
Led by a group of experienced seniors and talented underclassman the Tigers are right back in national championship contention.
"There are a lot of factors that come into play when you are competing. There are some things that have to fall your way," Williams continued. "What is most important to me is that we are capable of winning the national championship each year. We focus more on whether they are prepared and ready, with the mindset to win, more so than on whether we actually win it or not. The quickest way to failure is to only focus on winning. Most people have the will to win, but they don't have the will to prepare."
The Tigers lose All-Americans Indy Roper and Lindsay Portela, but this team is stocked with several talented rising seniors looking to repeat as national champions. The English side is led by sophomore Elizabeth Benson, and seniors Rachel Christina Lin and Jennifer Waxman, three All-Americans with a wealth of collegiate experience.
"After the performance Elizabeth Benson put on last year, you would have to keep your eye on her," Williams said. "But Christina Lin has always been one of our strong ones, and Jennifer Waxman may be poised to have her biggest year yet, which is saying a lot."
"I look forward to having a great last year to finish up my time at Auburn. I feel we can use our success from last season to help keep us motivated this year," Waxman said. "I know after last year, an SEC Championship is on all of our minds, and I am looking forward to competing for that title one more time."
On the Western side, senior Stephanie Rucci looks to lead the way along with junior Katsy Leeman. Rucci was a second-team All American and will be a four-year starter for Auburn.
"Katsy Leeman has continued to push hard and excel in the reining event, so she's going to be a major contributor," Williams said. "And Stephanie Rucci was a leader last year in horsemanship, so we look for her to be that again this year."
Replacing All-Americans Roper and Portela will be no easy task for the Tigers. The 2013 signing class features a talented group of riders. World champion horsemanship rider Lacy Watson looks to add depth to the western side. Demi Stiegler, a junior transfer from TCU, looks to contribute early on the English side. Stiegler is an All-American and a solid addition for the Tigers.
"Any number of the freshmen can come in and contribute," Williams stated. "The one with the most wins under her belt is Lacy Watson. She works two events and has won a world title before. But we will need many of the newcomers stepping up. Demi Stiegler was an All-American at TCU, and what I like about Demi is she really seems hungry for our team-first approach."
New NCEA Championships Format
The 2014 NCEA Championships will feature a new format of competition. In previous years the NCEA Championships were comprised of a Western bracket and a Hunt-Seat bracket. The top 12 Hunt-Seate and 12 Western teams were invited to compete. The NCEA Selection Committee invited these teams based on records. For each round a team advanced, a certain number of points were received. This determined an overall national champion.
The 2014 championships will feature a meet-style format, the same format teams use to compete throughout the regular season. Auburn experienced tremendous success with the divided format and looks to continue those winning ways in the new team format.
"With the (NCEA Championships) format changing this year, we will be competing as one team," Williams said. "I've always contended that if we had this format the whole time, we would have a few more national championships. We are very strong together."
It's hard to find a low point to last season's national championship squad. Ask most team members and they'll tell you falling short to South Carolina in the SEC Championship stung.
"To come that far and fall short, especially on your home turf is hard," Lin said. "But I believe this team will only be better with the addition of some great riders coming in. We'll be ready to take care of business."
The Tigers return one of the strongest rosters in the SEC, but will have some fierce competition. The second-ever SEC Championships will be hosted by the Gamecocks, March 28-29, in Blythewood, S.C.
"(The SEC) gets tougher every year," Williams added. "We are a young sport and very proud of where the sport is going. All the teams across the country get tougher and tougher every year."
The quest for a fourth national championship starts September 28, with a home meet against Fresno State University.