By LIZ CRUMBLY
The fact that Berry College was even present at this year’s IHSA Nationals was “a pleasant surprise,” according to Head Coach Margaret Knight, and it was all because of one blue ribbon.
Berry had tied for fourth place at Semifinals at Black Hawk College in March. Only the top three teams from this competition advance to National finals. Knight learned that another team had been disqualified from Nationals contention – given the fourth-place Semifinals tie, only one of those teams could fill the empty slot, she explained. Berry’s Annalee Cooley had earned a first place at Semifinals, while the other team had no blues, Knight said, making Berry the pick for Nationals contention.
“You have to just think of all those things that had to fall together for us to actually go,” Knight said. “It was just kind of surreal.”
The Western team lead bounced around throughout the weekend; by Sunday, Berry was in fourth place – “kind of the middle of the pack,” as Knight put it. The team’s linchpin, open rider Elizabeth Poczobut, still had to perform her horsemanship pattern.
“She is best under pressure, and she’s so experienced,” Knight said. “This is her third year at Nationals … she knows it’s kind of up to her.”
Poczobut pushed the team to the championship with her second-place horsemanship finish.
Assistant Coach Debra Wright said Berry’s surprise appearance at Nationals had a significant effect on the riders.
“The theme of the rest of the season was ‘everything happens for a reason,’” she explained.
Wright taught the Berry Western riders every week this season, and she said she witnessed a special bond among them.
The most impressive things were “the spiritual connection and the friendship and the kindness,” she explained.
“Hats off to parents,” she said. “Last year’s group and this year’s must have A-plus parents.”
Despite Berry’s first-place finish at Nationals in 2015, this year was somewhat of a building year, Wright said. Given the delayed notice of their Nationals qualification, the riders lacked a little confidence going in, she said, but she watched them “prove to each other that they did deserve to be there” as the weekend progressed.
Knight said the fact that Berry tied for first place with St. Andrews University was “almost even better” than winning solo.
She had high praise for St. Andrews Coach Carla Wennberg.
“To tie with Carla’s team is just such an honor because she’s so good at that she does,” Knight said.