BY DAN STICKRADT
Mary Juengel grew up in a family where basketball was king.
“My father played and he’s a coach. My sisters and brothers played…It was all about basketball,” recalled Juengel, who is a current 16-year-old sophomore at Midland Dow High School. “My brother even played in college. So much of my family revolved around basketball.”
While it is not uncommon that several members of a family play or coach in the same sport, it was an usual way for Mary Juengel to depart from the usual path of her family to pick up another growing sport: Equestrian.
“I never had a horse before a couple of years ago,” offered Juengel. “I love my horse (Angel). We have such great chemistry. But if something never happened to me, I would have never got into riding.”
It was in 2011 when Mary Juengel was in middle school and when she came down with a rare form of acute leukemia. She ended up missing an entire year of school while spending another year as a home-schooled student to keep up with her studies. A long road of nearly 2.5 years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments was enough to dapper the spirits of any youth.
The good news … actually there is plenty. First, Mary Juengel is now cancer free. Second, she is in love with her favorite new sport — riding horses in competition as a member of Midland Dow’s equestrian team.
“It has become a huge part of Mary’s life — all of ours,” said Marni Juengel, Mary’s mother. “Going to practices and competitions. She loves it. (Equestrian) is so unique. There isn’t anything like it. There’s some real sense of family with it.”
A family friend, Shelley Smith, had a horse that she was going to sell. She ended up giving the horse to the Juengel family in 2013.
“It’s so therapeutical for Mary,” continued Marni Juengel. “She’s so happy with her horse and going to practice and competing. She’s met so many new friends. Being sick, she couldn’t compete in basketball. But having a horse and getting into equestrian, she could still compete.”
In the past 10 years, a total of 346 schools have fielded teams in Michigan, although that has fluctuated from year-to-year based the numbers schools entering riders. The teams hail from traditional public, private and charter schools, along with special education schools and even home-school units.
A participant must compete for the school that he or she will graduate. Although dominated by females riders, males also compete in the competitions, which are co-ed in scoring at meets.
Mary Juengel is one of the thousands of high school and middle school athletes that are involved in the sport across the state this school year. While equestrian shares similarities with sports such as bowling, skiing, hockey and cross-country, where competitions are mainly held off campus and away from school facilities, equestrian is the only high school sport in Michigan that involves both athletes and animals.
Throughout the season, all competitions fall under the leadership of governing body Michigan Interscholastic Horsemanship Association (www.miha.org), which was founded back in the 1970s.
“It’s huge,” said Marni Juengel. “I never knew much about it until Mary got involved. We were never around horses. But when you go to meets, there’s a lot of people.”
And horses and trailers, too.
“Sometimes you will see families camping out for the weekend,” said Dennis Barthal, whose daughters compete for Freeland High School, which won Class C state titles in both 2014 and 2015. “There is a really cool atmosphere with it. In a way, it is like a party.”
For competitions, teams are placed into classification brackets based on the amount of riders at the school, not enrollment. Some of the larger schools in the state might split into two squads and have a varsity and reserve unit for competition.
The breakdown is that Division A is open or teams of 11 or more riders; Division B is geared for teams of 5-10 riders; Division C team is for 3-5 riders; and Division D is for teams with just 1 or 2 riders, giving teams of the smallest size a chance to compete against one another — even one-rider teams.
“It works really well,” said Arlene Koenig, Chairperson of District No. 6 and co-coach at Bay City Western High School in Auburn. “We have close to 15 teams in our district. Some years it’s more a some years it’s less. It all depends on how many schools have riders.
“We had 19 riders at Bay City Western this year, and a school like Freeland only had two riders,” continued Koenig. “So while we all might be at the same meet, a school like Freeland will only compete against really small teams. Last year they had more riders, so they were up a division.”
Equestrian at the high school level usually involves 1-2 judges per event, depending on the competition. Riders are limited to up to eight of the 17 events at the competitions unless there is an exemption.
“I guess the best way to describe it is equestrian is a lot like track. You can only compete in so many events at a meet,” noted Karen Logan, chairperson at District No. 2 which encompasses parts of Genesee, Lapeer, Oakland and Macomb counties. “Unless there is an exception, riders cannot compete in every event. They must spread out the riders.”
There are maximum amount of slots for each team at a competition — 63 slots for Class A, 42 slots for Class B, 24 slots for Class C and 16 slots for Class D. An invoice point system for the top eight scorers in each event is in place to help tabulate a final team score at the conclusion of a competition.
Coaching staffs will assign class slots to each rider. Each rider shall not participate in more than eight events in any one meet unless unusual circumstances, such as a one-rider team in Class D. Exemptions must be filed before each competition. There are other exceptions available in the other three classes, again boiling down to the number of riders entered.
Schools that have 15 or more riders can split into two squads, although they cannot compete in the same class at a particular meet.
In a rare event that a school has 25 or more riders, or even 31 or more riders, the school may split and enter in multiple divisions. No rider may interchange between teams. Cooperative teams of multiple riders from several schools are not allowed (complete rules are found on the MIHA website rulebook link.)
There are 20 districts in the state each year and five regions. The top two teams in each district from each of the four classes advance to the regional Oct. 7-8.
The top two teams in each regional from each of the four classes will advance to the final weekend of the 2016 season. The state finals are a four-day extravaganza and will take place Oct. 13-16 at the Midland County Fairgrounds.
Caledonia (Division A), Grand Haven (Division B), Freeland (Division C) and Breckenridge (Division D) are the defending state champions.
Interested in starting a team in 2017? Head to the MIHA web site (www.miha.org) to register. Even one-rider teams are accepted at tournaments and a way to kickstart interest at a given school.
Directories of district chairpersons are also found on the website, so interested athletes and coaching candidates can reach out and register.
New teams must also apply with the state’s executive board, which is also listed on the governing body’s website.
In 1968, a group of parents in the northwestern suburbs of Detroit were involved in an equestrian census to get a handle on the potential of developing the sport at the high school level. After realizing that there were over 10,000 horses in Oakland County, equestrian enthusiasts Ed Cheyz, Kelly Lawerance and Carmi Edwards purposed a school sponsored horsemanship program to the Huron Valley School Board. The school board recommended holding a horse show to determine the extent of interest in a horsemanship program.
By 1972, a horsemanship committee was formed and the first ever “Father’s Day Show” was held. A portable arena and public address system were used to hold the show in front of Milford High School. The show was so successful that it brought in 1,200 spectators, 600 entries and a profit of around $1,700. The success justified establishing an educational horsemanship program.
The first equestrian team competition in Michigan was held in the fall of 1973 at the Bogie Lake Country Club indoor facility near Milford between 5 schools – Hartland, Howell, Holly, Fenton and Milford — under the guise of the Huron Valley Interscholastic Horsemanship Association.
By 1976, the renamed Michigan Interscholastic Horsemanship Association (MIHA) held its very first state championship, where Romeo captured the open class state title at the Oak Ridge Stables in White Lake Township.
Over the years, traveling trophies for each division are passed out at each state finals, showcasing the proud winners.
Over the past four decades, the sport has added four divisions and a complex scoring system that has attracted a growing amount of interest of schools, riders, coaches, parents, judges and overall popularity to reach its current status today.
“The sport has come a long ways,” offered Dee Shepard, veteran coach at Oxford High School who has watched her team advance from 16 straight district competitions and win two state titles to along the way. “It has improved in a lot of ways over the past 20-plus years. The riders are more talented, the coaching is better. There is a lot more awareness of the sport, which I think has helped it grow across the state.”
Although mainly funded by clubs and fundraisers, many schools offer varsity letters to competitors who represent their school, just like other sports. Some schools even have banners placed on the gymnasium walls honoring past district, regional and state championship teams.
“When you go to schools like ours, you can see the banners up, just like the other sports,” beamed Shepard. “I know a lot of schools out there do this. It is so nice to see the sport gain respect.”
Stacy Gaffke, co-coach at Midland Bullock Creek, believes the sport’s uniqueness that creates a family feel has helped it grow in popularity.
“When you have so many schools, so many riders around each other all the time, I think friendships are formed,” said Gaffke, who also has had children compete in MIHA competitions. “Although kids compete against each other, there is a closeness that you might not see with other sports.”
SEASON NEARING ITS END
For Mary Juengel and her Midland Dow teammates, there won’t be a regional or state finals competition this season, as the Chargers finished third at the recent Class A Midland district. Other uber-talented squads will steal the limelight down the stretch of the 2016 season.
That’s okay with Mary Juengel, who competes for a team without any seniors.
“I may go out and watch the state finals because you can pick up things up from other riders. Plus, it’s so close being in Midland and all,” she laughed. “I will probably have friends (from other schools) competing, so I can go cheer them on.”
Mary Juengel, who has not competed in basketball for five years since her original diagnoses with leukemia, may return to that sport this winter. But her heart is now with her horse Angel, her teammates, her coach, her new-found friends — and the sport she calls No. 1, even though hoops may reign supreme in Juengel family.
“I can’t imagine not being involved now,” added Juengel. “I love everything about this sport. And just think, if I didn’t get sick I wouldn’t be here today.”
It was meant to be.
(Dan Stickradt is 23-year veteran multi-media journalist in Michigan. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @LocalSportsFans and on several social media platforms.)