By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
As first a rider at Texas A&M and then a coach at Kansas State, Casie Maxwell saw the NCEA National Championships go through changes and try new things.
But. In the most dramatic changes in the history of the meet, three new teams are competing for the first time and there's a total of seven different titles up for grabs when the meet begins Wednesday morning at the Extraco Events Center in Waco.
"It guarantees another opportunity to play," said Maxwell, in her first season as the Baylor head coach. "They know they get to come here and play Wednesday and Thursday, regardless of how they finish out. Hopefully, it's appealing in the sense that it will continue to encourage new schools to come and play. Here's a platform where they can come and be successful, so that's what we're hoping to get at the end of this."
Rather than just the one overall team champion, a format that was used each of the last four years, there will also be championships for horsemanship, reining, flat and fences that will determine champions in Western (combined point totals for horsemanship and reining) and Hunt Seat (flat and fences).
"It will be our first time, obviously, doing it this way," said Baylor senior Rachel Van Allen, who was named the Big 12 Equestrian Scholar-Athlete of the Year. "I think it's really going to benefit a lot of schools, because a lot of schools are strong in certain events and it allows more teams to compete. I'm excited about it."
The first round of the event competition, with a 16-team bracket for each of the four disciplines, begins Wednesday morning. Baylor kicks it off with equitation over fences, with the 11th-seeded Bears facing No. 6 seed South Carolina at 9 a.m.
Seeded sixth in reining and horsemanship, Baylor will face 11th-seeded Tennessee-Martin at 10:30 a.m. in reining and 11th-seeded South Carolina at 3:45 p.m. in horsemanship. The Bears are seeded 12th in equitation on the flat and will face fifth-seeded SMU at 1:30 p.m.
"It gives us a chance to excel in every division, and I think it will show our strength, especially, and gives us more chances to ride," said junior Western rider Abbi Demel, who won the AQHA Collegiate Horsemanship Challenge in the fall. "I think we have a good chance to win it all if we have a good first round, and I think the girls are ready."
For the eight-team bracket, Baylor (5-8) is seeded seventh and will face No. 2 seed Auburn (10-4) in the quarterfinals at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. The Bears split the season series with the Tigers, losing 15-4 on the road back in the fall before winning 9-8 in February at the Willis Family Equestrian Center.
"We've tried to push on that," Maxwell said. "We're 1-1 with them, they're beatable, this is neutral for everyone. Like the basketball season, it's postseason and anything's up for grabs. Anyone can be a Cinderella team, and anyone can be overly promoted and kind of fall apart at the last minute. So, anything is possible."
Baylor was the overall No. 1 seed last year and lost to ninth-seeded TCU, 9-7, in the quarterfinals, knocked out by the Horned Frogs for the second straight year.
The other quarterfinal pairings in the team bracket have top-seeded Georgia facing No. 8 South Carolina, third-seeded Oklahoma State matched up against No. 6 TCU and fifth-seeded SMU going against No. 4 seed and defending champion Texas A&M.
After an up-and-down first year under Maxwell that included wins over Auburn and South Carolina and a regular-season sweep of TCU, the Bears are hoping to finish on a strong note. Baylor dropped its last four meets, including an 0-2 finish at the Big 12 Championships.
"Our team has really kept our chin up," Maxwell said. "We had a really tough schedule being on the road most of the fall and getting beat up a little. It's hard to keep morale up from that. But, we saw some good success against some really good teams in the spring.
"I think after everything they've been through - there has been a lot of change this year with not only me coming in but having a new hunt seat coach (Marlena Beckham) coming in midyear - they've just adapted to that. They've just rolled with it and have been OK, and they've leaned on each other and have kept their chins up. So, that's what we're hoping to do."
Van Allen said it's been a long four years, "we've put in so much, so it would be great to come out with a win, for sure, and just kind of cap it all off."
THANK YOU TO DONORS: "Honestly, I probably wouldn't have ended up in Texas if it weren't for this team and just this experience because I don't have family down here or anything. But, (the scholarship) has been a huge blessing, for sure. I'm just very grateful." - Rachel Van Allen, senior, Hunt Seat rider
WACO, Texas -- Hosting at the Extraco Events Center in partnership with the City of Waco and McLennan County for the 12th-straight season, the Baylor equestrian squad is set to take part in the 2018 NCEA Championship, running Wednesday through Saturday.
The tournament format has expanded to a fourth day, keeping the traditional team format pitting the nation's top eight teams in competition for recognition as the NCEA National Champion.
The addition to the standard format added four event-specific brackets (fences, flat, horsemanship, reining), featuring up to 16 teams competing for one of four titles as NCEA Event National Champions.
The highest combined point totals in the events competitions by discipline (hunt seat, western) will be awarded recognition as one of two NCEA Discipline National Champions.
BU will kick off its tournament run in the events brackets on Wednesday with the opening round in all four events.
Baylor leads off with reining as the No. 6 seed, facing No. 11 UT-Martin, and in fences as the No. 11 seed vs. No. 6 South Carolina, both slated for an 8:30 a.m. start on Wednesday.
Later that afternoon, the No. 12 seed BU flat team will take on No. 5 SMU at 1:30 p.m. before the No. 6 Baylor horsemanship squad takes on No. 11 South Carolina at 2:30 p.m. to close the opening day of competition.
Baylor (5-8) enters the team competition as the No. 7 overall seed, paired with No. 2 Auburn to open play on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. A win over the Tigers would land the Bears into the semifinal round, taking place later that afternoon at approximately 3:30 p.m.
The quarterfinals and semifinals of the event brackets will take place on Friday starting at 8:30 p.m.
The three days of competition leads into the Canadian Pacific NCEA Championship Saturday, with the team and all four event championship finals concluding on Saturday.
The team title matchup kicks off at 8:30 a.m. with the event titles later that afternoon in the order of fences and horsemanship at 2 p.m., followed by reining and flat at 3:30 p.m.
Admission to all days is free to the public. Fans who can't make it to Waco for the NCEA Championship can follow online at the tournament central page, which includes results, live scoring, and live-stream links: https://baylorbea.rs/2018NCEA.
Baylor fans can follow the official Twitter and Facebook accounts @BaylorEQ, and the Instagram account @BaylorEquestrian for updates.