Southern Maryland's hottest couple captured the attention of the nation's television viewers Friday when they were chosen over three other finalists to be featured on a wedding program on NBC.
Mark Dale, 26, of Lusby and Sarah Raley, 23, of Valley Lee, along with more than 100 enthusiastic onlookers, gathered at the Solomons Island pavilion Friday morning for a live broadcast of the "Today" show. The engaged couple prevailed over hundreds of applicants to be selected as finalists for a program to be called "Today Throws a Hometown Wedding."
After some tense waiting during the broadcast, they were told that they were the voters' top choice.
"I am so excited," Raley said. "Mark and I were talking about how it took everyone maybe three seconds to vote, and then it's the rest of our lives, so we are so thankful that everybody took the time to do this. And now everyone is going to get to see what we have to offer here and that our hometown is really wonderful."
Raley said she had been waiting for about a year to apply to the contest. The two will have their wedding planned by voting viewers and broadcast on television.
As part of their entry, Raley and Dale made a videotape that featured Southern Maryland scenery, including St. Mary's College of Maryland, the Piney Point lighthouse and the pier in Valley Lee.
"My dad was the narrator," Raley said. "We kind of pretended this was the first time we'd met. [Dale] sits down beside me on my parents' pier, and he falls into the water, and I jump in and save him."
The application evidently impressed the people at NBC, and Dale and Raley were selected along with couples from Hampden, Maine; Bucks County, Pa., and Seattle to be finalists. The couples went to New York to appear on the show Monday, and some 200,000 Internet voters selected their favorites all week.
In Southern Maryland the contest sparked a flurry of excited talk and e-mails. Bill Scarafia of the St. Mary's County Chamber of Commerce sent an e-mail saying "I know this is HIGHLY unusual, but we're getting some great National exposure" and urging people to vote.
"In order to win the couple will need to get A LOT of on-line votes," he wrote. "You can only vote once on each computer so everyone with a computer will need to vote."
At Solomons, the mood was equally upbeat. Mark and Sarah supporters wore pink T-shirts emblazoned with a photo of the couple. Someone held up a sign that read: "Mark and Sarah sitting in a tree, we want the Today show to marry them in Valley Lee."
"This is overwhelming," said Mike Dale, Mark's father. "This is the craziest thing I've ever seen."
The couple -- wearing matching red Maryland shirts, with Dale sporting a cowboy hat and floral print shorts and toting a bottle of champagne -- drove up in a Jeep. Raley wore a pleated jean skirt and flip-flops. There were a few live shots of the crowd whooping it up and then tense silence as the couple waited for the winners to be announced.
No one could hear what Katie Couric or Matt Lauer had to say except for the couple, who listened with earpieces. They held hands so tightly that their knuckles turned white. All of a sudden, Dale threw up both arms, and the audience burst into roars and group hugs.
Over the next eight weeks, the video cameras will visit Southern Maryland each Friday to document the planning process. "Today" viewers will choose the cake, ring, location, attire, hairstyle and other details, culminating in the wedding Sept. 16.
Dale and Raley were born at St. Mary's Hospital and attended Leonardtown High School. She graduated from St. Mary's College of Maryland and he from the College of Southern Maryland. They met in high school and grew closer while working out together at Pro Fitness Gym in California, Md. Dale works there as a general manager, and Raley is director of sales at the Hampton Inn and works at the gym part time.
Raley said the couple enjoy watersports and playing with their two Yorkshire terriers, Hero and Mighty.
They have been together for six years. During that time, Raley said, Dale has always been there to support her as her father has struggled with cancer, just as he had been with his mother before she succumbed to cancer.
"I just saw the way that he cared for her and loved her, and he showed me that same kind of love and respect," she said. "I know if anything like that ever happened to me, he'd do the same thing for me."