By Marquis Cooley | Sports Editor
Sitting at a 7-7 record after placing third in the Big 12 Championships, Baylor equestrian was rewarded with the No. 6 seed in the 2022 National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) National Championship that takes place from April 14-16 at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Fla.
“This team is so insanely special to me,” jumping seat junior Maddie Vorhies said. “As cliche as it sounds, it feels like a family. We have put in so much work and with all the hardships that have happened, we’ve still pushed through. We’ve come together as a team and worked so, so hard. So, just to make it to nationals, just to prove how much work we put in, really means a lot.”
Their opponent in the quarterfinals will be No. 3 seed Texas A&M University at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday as part of the single-elimination team bracket. The Bears and Aggies split their regular season series with each squad gaining a win on their home turf, Baylor winning 12-7 on Oct. 15, 2021 and A&M taking the rematch on Jan. 29 10-8. However, close meets are expected when these two squads face off.
“There’s just been a history of really close meets with Texas A&M, and we had a great win against them in the fall,” head coach Casie Maxwell said. “What I would encourage my team is, all of those meets are in the past. The only thing that matters at this point is what we do on Thursday. We definitely have a lot of confidence going and playing them. We know we’re perfectly capable of going up against them in all four events and holding our own, but we’ve got to be on our best on Thursday and that’s what’s going to matter.”
Maxwell’s team has taken that message to heart and looks to put on their best show on Thursday.
“Whenever [Texas A&M] came to us, it was my first time beating them since being on the team, so that was a huge confidence boost,” Vorhies said. “We did come up short when we traveled to them. I know we had a rough side on the jumping seat side, but we have been practicing and working so hard and we have finally put all the pieces together, and we’re ready to go show off what we can do.”
The Bears will be looking to recreate the magic that allowed them to upset No. 1 seed Auburn University last season to advance to the NCEA semifinals for the first time in program history. Maxwell feels the team is more than capable of doing something like that again as they’re very familiar with all of the teams in the tournament, beating a few of them earlier in the season while battling down to the wire with the rest of them.
“I’ve been very intentional in how we set up our regular season schedule since I’ve been at Baylor to not make it easy on our team, to put us up against some of the toughest teams in the country and test the waters,” Maxwell said. “This year specifically, I think we’ve played every team that’s here at nationals, if not once, twice, if not three times, counting the Big 12 Championship. Knowing we’ve played high-ranked teams all season; we’ve won, we’ve lost in close meets and things like that makes my team feel very confident in their ability coming into this.”
However, Maxwell and her squad know first hand that anything can happen at nationals and what has happened in the past doesn’t necessarily matter much anymore.
“We also know just looking at history, nationals is its own beast,” Maxwell said. “Last year we knocked off the No. 1 team in the country who had gone undefeated for 40 plus competitions, that spanned over several years. Anything is fair game here. If you’re the No. 1 team in the country, you’ve got everything to lose. If you’re the No. 8 team in the country, you’ve got nothing to lose. Everyone’s going to come here and pour their heart out, and our ranking is no different in that we’ve got to be our best against every individual opponent we play Thursday, hopefully into Friday and hopefully into Saturday — no matter what history has looked like playing against those teams.”
This will be the first time the NCEA Championships is held somewhere other than Waco in over a decade, which Maxwell thinks will help the team compete at the highest level.
“There’s that reality of really checking yourself out of your home, out of your own bed, your own apartment and getting away from what feels in some ways like a home meet in Waco, and traveling and really checking into the National Championship,” Maxwell said. “This will be really good for them, to compete at a different level than what they have been able to in Waco.”
While Maxwell is happy she won’t have to worry about hosting duties while preparing her squad for a title run, she’s also excited about the potential of drawing in a whole new fanbase.
“One of the biggest drawings here is having more riding space in our jumping seat arena. At Waco, we were constantly having to tear down the fences and then reset the flat and it was taking time during our day. So, that was a big draw in coming here,” Maxwell said. “And truly you’re kind of in the heart of horse country down here in Florida. It’s just going to be a great experience from that standpoint, hopefully attract a whole new world of fans down here to watch collegiate equestrian.”