Little-known high school sport captures state championship through commitment and hard work

COURTESY PHOTO - The Forest Grove equestrian team rides during a competition earlier this season. The Vikings won the state championship in May.When considering high school athletics, most think football, baseball, basketball and maybe a few others like soccer, volleyball and wrestling. But among the group of sports that sit just beyond the radar is equestrian — and Forest Grove is pretty darned good at it.

The Vikings recently wrapped up their 2016-17 equestrian campaign and did so in the best way possible: with a state championship.

Forest Grove defeated nearly 100 teams and placed four in the top 20 individual point-getters in a field of almost 300. Abigail Dillavou led the Vikings and the field, totaling 140 points and placing first among high team contributors. Marlee James was fifth with 88 points, Anna Dillavou was 12th with 80 and Breanna Holmes tied for 19th with 68. Other Viking contributors included Alexandrea Jones, Grace James and Kat Rieger with 54 points, Kylie Bettis and Brittney Springer with 44, Cassie Jones with 42, Jessica Heinauer and Shelby Williams with 40, Daisy Pratt with 36 and Jordan Vanfleet with 32.

The Vikings scored 299 total points in the team competition and narrowly edged out Ridgeview who finished second with 295. Rounding out the top five were Canby (252), Sandy (252) and Barlow 236.

"It was our first state championship," said Forest Grove head coach Erin VanDyke. "It was pretty exciting."

Much like in track or swimming, athletes qualify for state based on their performance in the three district competitions that are held monthly starting in February. Forest Grove competes in the Northwest District along with Aloha, Astoria, Banks, Beaverton, Gaston, Glencoe, Hillsboro, Knappa, Liberty, Rainier, Scappoose, Southridge, St Helens, Sunset, Tillamook, Vernonia and Westview. Practice officially begins Nov. 1, when teams begin working on the patterns and routines they'll use in upcoming competitions. There are 28 events between the individual and teams, and athletes are limited to five events individually, though they're able to compete in as many team events as possible — something VanDyke encourages.

"The team events are what make our organization so special," said the coach.

COURTESY PHOTO - Forest Grove's Brittney Springer rides Wrangler while grabbing a flag in the Canadian Flag relay at a competition earlier this season.VanDyke, who has a bachelor's degree in equine science from Oregon State University, started the equestrian team at Forest Grove High School during her junior year and competed until graduation. She's been coaching the team for seven years now, and due to her experience competing and now as a coach, understands and appreciates the hard work that goes into competing at this level.

"We practice once or twice a week, usually until the horses get exhausted," VanDyke said with a chuckle. "But the girls spend far more time on their own working with their horse in an effort to learn and master the routines."

VanDyke said much of their time practicing is for the drill team event, which involves a choreographed routine full of weaving and straight-line maneuvers with 11 horses — and riders, of course — moving at a fairly rapid rate.

"It gets pretty dangerous," she said. "You've got 11 horses moving at a decent clip, so we practice that at least once and sometimes twice a week as we get closer to competitions."

Forest Grove had 15 athletes on this year's team. Most had their own horse, and if not, they leased a mount when necessary to have the proper horse to be competitive. A few keep their horse at home, but most board their animal at a facility that enables them to practice every day and in some cases have access to professional trainers.

COURTESY PHOTO - Forest Grove's Marlee James handling Presley in the In-Hand Obstacle relay during a competition earlier this season.While occasionally VanDyke has had interested riders approach her about the team, the majority of athletes come up through 4-H, which is a global network of youth organizations with a goal of developing citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills of youth through learning programs and a positive youth development approach.

"Most of our kids have been doing this for most of their lives, often starting in 4-H," said VanDyke. "I think our newest rider has been riding for four years."

She thinks there's value in experience that goes beyond the individual rider.

"Some of the kids are such good riders that they can teach a new horse and/or get the horse where it needs to go," said VanDyke. "But some of the less experienced kids need the horse to know what it's doing."

That ability to teach applies when a horse is either injured or is just having one of those days. Animals, like their human counterparts, occasionally can be disinterested and in that moment the only hope of motivating them is through experience and knowledge, according to VanDyke. In the case of an injury, a backup horse is necessary and an experienced rider is able to manipulate that animal right away, as opposed to the time needed for a less experienced one to train.

"Sometimes horses just have off days," said the coach. "You just hope those days aren't during competitions."

VanDyke said this year's team was successful in part because of experience, but also due to hard work and ability to work together.

"One of the great things about this team was that we didn't have a lot of drama," she said. "Everyone is 100 percent committed and that's why we were so good."

Equestrian is a club sport and competes under the blanket of the Oregon High School Equestrian Teams organization, while following Oregon School Activities Association guidelines for eligibility and participation. Forest Grove's team gets no financial support from the school district, but uses the athletic department for eligibility checks.

"I try to keep Doug (Thompson, Forest Grove High School athletic director) and the school out of our stuff as much as possible, ... they have enough to deal with," said VanDyke. "Having said that, when I've needed Doug he's been there and been great."

COURTESY PHOTO - Forest Grove's Jessica Heinauer rides Riley in hunt seat over fences in a competition earlier this season.Following the state championships, a number of Vikings qualified for and competed in the Pacific Northwest Invitational Championship, also in Redmond. Marlee James finished second in Dressage, Jordan Vanfleet seventh in Driving; Abigail Dillavou eighth in Western Horsemanship; Abigail and Anna Dillavou first in Working Pairs; Breanna Holmes and Daisy Pratt fifth in Working Pairs; and Holmes, Abigail Dillavou, James and Vanfleet fifth in Hand Obastacle Relay. The Freestyle 5+ team placed fourth.

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