Morris' wild NCAA-title ride

Michelle Morris was surprised when her mom handed her the May 24th issue of Sports Illustrated and she saw her name and face staring back at her with a small write-up.

Sports Illustrated included Morris in a "Faces in the Crowd" segment. The item chronicled how the La Cañada High graduate propelled the University of Georgia to win the NCAA Varsity Equestrian National Championship during a sudden-death ride-off.

"It's always our goal to get to that point and win the national championship," Morris said. "It was the most intense thing I have ever been through in my entire life. It was so exciting and a great way to end it, obviously."

When Morris was told she would be riding in the sudden-death ride-off to help the Georgia Bulldogs to a possible win in the national championship, she showed poise and came through, said Meghan Boenig, Morris' coach at Georgia.

"I'm sure she was panicking somewhere, but she never showed it," Boenig said. "She was able to go out there and beat her opponent by 30 points, which gave Texas A&M no chance to come back. It gave our whole team a huge breath."

Somehow it got even better for Morris. Not only was she a part of a championship-winning team, but she also won the individual title in the event.

"The individual was actually really unexpected," Morris said. "It was something I knew was possible throughout the year, but it wasn't one of my main goals because it's almost as if you think about it — it doesn't happen. You just have to keep being consistent throughout the year."

This all sounds like the perfect ending to a dramatic senior season, but it's not. Morris, who turned 21 on June 20, was only a sophomore, and has two more years at Georgia.

Morris began her involvement in the sport by chance. While running errands with her mom, a 7-year old Morris spied a flier for a horse-riding camp, which ended up sparking her equestrian career. After attending the camp she told her mother she wanted to take riding lessons, and her interest evolved from there.

Soon, Morris was with a trainer in Chatsworth and at 13 she began training with Karen Healy in Thousand Oaks, who she still works with today. Healy's training reinforces the basics of riding and was influential in getting her experience in shows, Morris said.

That is important at the college level because Morris is always riding a different horse. Often, she has to focus so much on controlling different horses with different personalities and tendencies that she has little time to worry about her skills. The experience Healy has given Morris has proven priceless.

"I remember [Healy] telling my parents, 'the more you get into the show ring, the less the nerves are going to be and it will just become second nature,' " Morris said. "Training with her has helped me out a lot with that."

Morris graduated from La Cañada in 2008 and was a member of the Interscholastic Equestrian League. It was through her participation in IEL that she decided to ride in college because the team-aspect appealed to her.

After deciding she wanted to ride in college during her junior year, Morris prepared a recruiting tape and sent it to the four big riding schools in the NCAA: Georgia, the University of South Carolina, Auburn and Texas A&M. NCAA rules state coaches cannot contact players until July 1 before their senior year in high school.

"Literally, that day, July 1, the coach from Georgia called me and said she loved my tape and invited me to come out for a recruiting visit," Morris said.

During her recruiting visit, Morris saw all that Georgia had to offer, and it was everything she wanted in a school: a big campus, an elite football program in the South East Conference and a great telecommunications program. The Bulldogs made Morris a great scholarship offer and she signed her letter of intent.

"I am so happy with my decision," Morris said. "It is everything I wanted in a college experience."

Georgia and Boenig are also happy with her decision, as she was named the Most Valuable Player of her team in 2010.

Not only is Morris a great rider for the Bulldogs, who knows how to push the envelope and impress the judges, but she is a leader as well, Boenig said. She works with the program's freshmen to let them know what to expect during practices and shows.

"[Morris] is a technician out there," Boenig said. "She knows exactly how to get a little bit more out of each maneuver and has an incredible feel for whatever horse she is riding. She can get more out of any horse than other riders."

Now the question is: How does Morris improve on her sophomore season where she won nearly every major award available to her?

"She wants to continue to be a powerhouse," Boenig said. "I'm going to ask for her to take on a bigger leadership role on the team next year."

Morris said she will continue to concentrate on the goal she's always had of staying consistent in every competition; something she believes is one of the hardest things to do in any collegiate sport.

"Honestly, I don't know how it could be any better," Morris said. "But if the next two years I am there we are able to win the team championship again that would just be fantastic."

The problem is Morris will face a new challenge next year, as opponents will be gunning for her.

"It isn't going to be an easy road next year because people are going to remember her," Boenig said. "She has become a moving target and she has to keep moving to stay on top because they are coming back stronger and better prepared for her."

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