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March 1, 2014

Coach Major

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BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. – With the No. 1 seed on the line for the 2014 SEC Equestrian Championship on Saturday against No. 2 Auburn, the top-ranked Gamecocks got dominating performances from their hunt seat and western teams to defeat the Tigers, 12-7, at One Wood Farm in the final SEC regular season meet of the year. The Gamecocks improve to 10-2 overall, 4-2 in SEC play, while Auburn drops to 8-4 overall, 3-3 in SEC play.

South Carolina clinched the No. 1 seed on Saturday, and the Gamecocks will face No. 4 seed Texas A&M in the opening round of the SEC Championship on March 28 in Blythewood. Auburn secured the No. 3 seed on Saturday, and the Tigers will face No. 2 seed Georgia in the opening round of the SEC Championship. The winners of both meets will face each other on March 29 for the SEC Championship.

Saturday’s win gave the Gamecocks their first regular season sweep of the Tigers since the 2005-2006 season. In just the second year of the SEC sponsoring the sport of equestrian, South Carolina became the first team to reach the 10-win mark in SEC competitions. The Gamecocks won six SEC meets last year, and currently have four conference wins this season.

“I can’t think of a better way for a Senior Day meet to go, and it means a lot to all of us to be able to earn a win for our senior class today,” South Carolina head coach Boo Major said. “We had one of our best meets of the entire season today, and against a team as talented as Auburn, that’s exactly how we had to ride in order to win. Earning the No. 1 seed is certainly something to be proud of, and we’ll enjoy it for the next day or so, but come Monday we’ll be getting ready for next week’s meet at Tennessee-Martin. On top of our Senior Day, our Equifest Kids Day was a huge success and I’d like to thank our marketing department for putting on a great event, and our crowd today was fantastic. We appreciate everyone coming out today and really cheering us on, because I think it gave us some extra energy.”

Saturday’s meet began in the western arena, where the Gamecocks and Tigers each won two points apiece in reining. After the Tigers won the first point of the meet, sophomore Sarah Bouchard and senior Jordan Brown turned in back-to-back wins against their Auburn opponents, and the Tigers never led again on Saturday. Bouchard improved to 7-3 this season with a 67-63.5 win over Stephanie Rucci, and Brown followed with a 70-68.5 victory over Cheyenne Cracraft, earning Brown her first career MVP. Junior Cody McMillion held Auburn’s Morgan Burns to a 68-68 tie.

“It was important for us to start strong early, and when you can hold Auburn to two points in reining, then you’ll certainly take it,” Major said. “Very pleased to see Sarah continue to have a great sophomore season, and it was special for everybody to see Jordan win her first MVP today. She’s a very talented rider and has been a key part of our reining lineup this season, and she rode beautifully for us today.”

In the hunt seat arena, the Gamecocks dominated the Tigers by winning four-of-five points in equitation on the flat. Juniors Adele Norton and Samantha Smith posted back-to-back wins to give the Gamecocks a 4-2 lead. Norton knocked off Auburn’s Elizabeth Benson, 69-62, and Smith edged the Tigers’ Christina Lin, 70-65. After the Tigers won the next point, junior Alexa Anthony and senior Kelsey Hart both won their points to give the Gamecocks a 6-3 lead at the halfway point of Saturday’s meet. Anthony kicked off her 2-for-2 day with a 75-68 win over Jennifer Delman, while Hart picked up her first MVP of the season with an event-high score of 76 to defeat Ashley Foster by five points.

“Our flat team rode lights out for us today and that’s a group that’s really worked hard this semester to get better,” Major said. “Mentally, I think a 4-1 win is a big momentum builder for them, and it was nice to see their hard work pay off today. Like Jordan, it was really nice to see Kelsey have such a great ride today and earn the MVP.”

With the Gamecocks leading the Tigers 6-3, Auburn won back-to-back jumping points in the hunt seat arena to cut the Carolina lead to 6-5. But Anthony, junior Katherine Schmidt, and sophomore Samantha Kraus closed out the event with a 3-0 sweep to give South Carolin a 9-5 lead. Anthony, just 24 hours after being named SEC Rider of the Month in equitation over fences, rolled past Auburn’s Demi Stiegler, 78-68. Schmidt rebounded from her flat loss earlier in the day, dropping Jennifer Waxman, 81-76, in what proved to be the meet-winning point on Saturday. Kraus completed the 3-0 sweep to close out the jumping with a 73-69 win over Lin.

“It’s no secret how good Auburn’s jumping team is, but at the same time, our jumpers have have consistently been strong all season, and I think we saw that again today,” Major said. “It was nice to see Morgan Hale get the momentum going for us by winning her exhibition point, she’s a senior that we’ll really miss next year on the hunt seat side, so I was very happy to see her go out today and put on a good ride in her exhibition.”

Up by four points and needing just one point to clinch the victory, the Gamecocks dropped the first horsemanship point, as the Tigers cut the Gamecocks lead to 9-6. But seniors Johnna Letchworth, Alison Ceresani, and Katie Kopf all won their points, slamming the door shut on Auburn’s comeback hopes. Letchworth picked up a 74.5-73.5 win over Stephanie Rucci, earning the senior her ninth MVP of the season and 22nd of her career. Letchworth now has 42 career horsemanship wins, leaving her two wins away from breaking former Gamecock Kimberly McCormack’s record of most wins in a single event (43 – equitation over fences, 2009-2013). With the meet officially out of reach, Ceresani posted an event-high score 75 to defeat Auburn’s Danielle Long by four points. Kopf finished the senior sweep with a 73.5-73 win over Lacy Watson, to give the Gamecocks a 12-6 lead. Auburn went on to win the final point of the meet, for a final score of 12-7, giving the Gamecocks the regular season sweep over the Tigers.

“With the meet on the line and still up in the air, our horsemanship seniors really delivered for us, and that was fun to watch,” Major said. “Our seniors on the western team are a pretty strong group and have ridden in plenty of high-pressure situations before, so we never doubted them for a second. It’s very fitting to see Katie, Ali, and Johnna go out there today and win their points.”

South Carolina now turns its attention to its regular season finale, when the Gamecocks travel to Martin, Tenn. next weekend to face the UT-Martin Skyhawks. South Carolina will then take a week off for spring break, then begin preparations for the 2014 SEC Equestrian Championship, which runs March 28-29 in Blythewood.