TOWSON, Md. — Coming off a year which included an undefeated regular season, a second Zone IV Championship and a sixth place finish at IHSA Nationals, it would be easy to forgive Goucher's equestrian team if it tried to tamper expectations for 2014-15.
With a large portion of last year's roster returning, however, along with another strong incoming class of freshmen, that is the last thing on head coach Jen Bunty's mind.
"Last year was definitely the best season we've ever had," she said. "But I don't think we've reached our peak at nationals. Once you get a taste of winning, it's hard not to be really driven. I'm lucky to have extremely motivated students. They put more pressure on themselves than I could ever put on them as a coach."
The Gophers secured their seventh regional title in the last 12 years in 2013-14, and they did so by winning all six regular season shows for the first time in program history. That momentum carried over to zones, where Goucher claimed its second championship in three years to earn a third straight appearance at nationals.
Joey Fink (Baltimore, Md./The Park School) and Anna Carmichael (Colorado Springs, Colo./William J. Palmer), the two point scorers for the Gophers at nationals, each return this year, though Carmichael will be abroad for the fall semester. Fink, who was crowned as the region's high point rider last spring and took first place in open flat at IHSAs, will be entering his fourth and final season at Goucher.
"Joey is remarkable," Bunty said. "Not only does he have talent, but he's also just improved a tremendous amount, particularly in the last two years. He is physically capable of doing what you tell him to do and mentally capable of handling the pressure."
Five freshmen, meanwhile, join the group of 15 returners which includes nationals participants Fink, Carmichael, Sarah Lummis (Westminster, Md./Winters Mill) and Alison Radgowski (Northport, N.Y./Northport), and Bunty expects competition to be fierce for spots in the lineup at each show this year.
"One nice thing is, as we continue to improve the depth in our roster, my job becomes more difficult because the obvious lineup choice isn't always obvious," Bunty said. "Several people are comparable talent-wise and are capable of winning at any given show."
The Gophers get their first opportunity to test themselves against elite competition this Saturday, when Goucher will play host to the Tournament of Champions Preseason Classic. The invite-only show will contain 18 of the top teams from across the country, and though results from this weekend will not count towards the regular season points total, there are several benefits of participating in the event.
"You get to see a lot of the other teams that you don't normally get to compete against," Bunty explained. "And you can see how you stack up. You can also try out some of the new people and see how they react to the environment. It's a huge deal to be able to host it."
After this weekend, Goucher's regular season begins with the Mount St. Mary's IHSA Show on Oct. 4. The Gophers will be aiming for another regional title before setting their sights on reaching even higher heights at the national level.
"I'm really pleased with how everyone is practicing so far," Bunty concluded. "I think it's going to be another great year for us."