Ashland University grad student/employee Cass Ponzi competing in Miss USA program
Picture the movie “Miss Congeniality,” specifically the scenes of Sandra Bullock’s character, tomboy FBI agent Gracie Hart, learning things she never dreamed of doing - dressing, walking and talking like a pageant contestant.
Before she goes undercover as “Miss New Jersey” after a terrorist threatens to bomb the fictional Miss United States event, Hart struggles mightily in her preparation with a pageant coach.
Ashland University student/employee Cass Ponzi said it was kind of like that for her when she began preparing as Miss Ashland for the Miss USA program, which will have its Ohio pageant May 19 and 20 in Portsmouth – without a bomb threat, of course.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Ponzi said with a laugh.
Vicki Maple, owner of the consulting business Ponzi worked with to prepare, had a good laugh when she heard about Ponzi’s comparison to the popular comedy film.
“The ‘Miss Congeniality’ reference is comical,” said Maple, who owns Revive with Vicki in the Columbus area. “While Cass came to me with absolutely no pageant nor stage experience, she is a competitive and conscientious collegiate athlete with a fire in her soul to overcome barriers and obstacles. That drive and grit resonates with me and is always more appealing than any menu of accolades or credentials.
“Upon meeting Cass, I was able to instantly observe her potential as an intelligent, focused, articulate and beautiful female leader,” added Maple, who competed in both the Miss USA and Miss America programs.
Ponzi, a 2022 AU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history, is working in Ashland’s admissions department while pursuing an MBA with a focus on digital marketing.
Due to an injury that didn’t allow her to compete this year, Ponzi still has eligibility as a cross country and track runner for the Eagles next year before she completes her AU master’s degree in spring 2024. She had surgery last spring for a hip labral tear and wasn’t able to even start running until February.
“It was a challenge that God put in my way, but I think it has made me stronger – made me look at things with a more positive mindset, with more gratitude,” said Ponzi, who added that participating in the Miss USA program has been a nice distraction from missing the cross country and track seasons.
Before the injury, actually about a year earlier, Ponzi applied online to the Miss USA program just for fun, thinking nothing would probably come of it.
Unlike the Miss America program, Miss USA doesn’t start with a pageant, instead picking the contestants from applications. This year, a little more than 60 were selected.
When she was picked almost two years after applying, Ponzi figured she needed some training.
Through her grandfather, Zanesville resident Bob Kessler, a board member of the Ashbrook Center, an independent academic institution on the AU campus, Ponzi met with Maple, who earned her undergrad, master’s and doctorate degrees all from Ashland University and who considers Kessler a professional mentor.
“Vicki has been incredible,” Ponzi said. “She kind of walked me through the process and introduced me to another lady who helped me get the walking and interview skills down.”
Like Bullock’s character in “Miss Congeniality,” Ponzi said pageants definitely weren’t for her but, with the incredible coaching through Maple’s business, she now admires the work that goes into participating in the Miss USA and Miss America programs and is looking forward to competing in one.
While she doesn’t have to thwart a bomb threat like Bullock’s “Miss Congeniality” character did, Ponzi said she is now confident she can make a good showing in the interview portion of the event, as well as the graceful walking needed across a stage for the swimsuit and formal gown parts.
After the first day, the field will be narrowed down to 15 contestants, who will repeat the swimsuit and formal gown judging, followed by the selection of five finalists, who will be interviewed again to pick the winner. The rest of the winners from across the country (one from each state and Washington, D.C.) then will compete, followed by that winner going to the Miss Universe contest in El Salvador.
Because she doesn’t sing, dance or play an instrument, Ponzi said she’s glad a talent isn’t required like it is for the Miss America program.
“I could run circles around the stage,” she said with a laugh.
People can help Ponzi make the finals or semifinals by voting at http://www.missohiousa.com/vote for the overall fan favorite, who is guaranteed a spot in the finals, and the people’s choice contestant, who automatically receives a spot in the semifinals.
How far Ponzi has come with the Miss USA experience is similar to her journey to AU and its cross country and track teams.
“I was pretty bad when I started running,” said Ponzi, who grew up in Los Angeles. “I just kept working really hard and by the time I was a junior (at AU), I earned a scholarship and was scoring points for the team.”
Continuing to work as hard as she can this spring by practicing with the track team, Ponzi also has been able to work on her Miss USA platform of empowering young girls and women in sports.
“I am encouraging my younger teammates that it’s never too late to get started in a sport or anything else in life,” Ponzi said. “I push them to come to practice every day with a positive mindset and let them know if you want something, you can achieve it.”
Using that mindset herself, Ponzi said she chose the more challenging option for her college running career by attending Division II Ashland instead of a smaller Division II or III university.
She also chose AU because her mother attended the university. After graduation, Ponzi’s mother went to grad school in California, where she met Ponzi’s father. Ponzi’s only sibling, Nick Ponzi, runs at AU, too, and graduated this spring.
Like her mother, Ponzi was an Ashbrook Scholar. The Ashbrook Scholar program is a rigorous and top-rated academic program for AU undergraduate students majoring or minoring in political science, political economy or history.
Even before Ponzi started the Miss USA process, she said “Miss Congeniality” was one of her favorite movies.
“Because it makes me laugh,” said Ponzi, who then realized she was doing the interview and photoshoot for this story on April 25, which is part of an iconic quote from the movie.
“Miss Rhode Island” is asked to “describe her perfect date” to which she responds, “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say April 25. Because it’s not too hot, not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.”
April 25, 2023, in Ashland wasn’t too hot, but was maybe a little too cold in the 40s. Ponzi had a little more than a light jacket on until she had to pose for photos for this story on AU’s outdoor track.
As funny as “Miss Congeniality” is to her, Ponzi’s own pageant experience has been no laughing matter. She has worked hard – even practicing her walking in the locker room after track practice for an hour or two many nights – and the experience has helped her grow as a person.
Family, friends and others have noticed that growth and they are looking forward to attending the Miss USA pageant for Ohio later this month, including her grandmother, Debbie Kessler.
“Ashland has been a great place for so many people in my family to learn and grow, so I was happy to see her give back and represent the area as Miss Ashland, Ohio,” Kessler said. “We have seen her grow in poise and confidence as she has pursued this journey and we can't wait to see the results.”
Ponzi ended up finishing in the top 16 and just missed making the top six finalists out of 61 contestants throughout Ohio.