SHERMAN — Just a few days before she turned 18, high schooler Lily Mancini found the perfect ending to her nine years competing as a junior dog handler — the Best Junior Showmanship title at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show.

Mancini, who celebrated her birthday Saturday, beat out 95 other junior handlers with her English springer spaniel, Liam, to earn the top spot at the national show in New York City.

A win like that, Mancini said, is what most junior handlers work toward their whole careers. Each junior handler must win seven other shows before becoming eligible for the annual competition with the Westminster Kennel Club.

For Mancini, the win, and the $10,000 scholarship prize, capped years of hard work, ending just before she leaves behind junior competitions for college next year.

“It was definitely a surprise and I’m really happy about it,” Mancini said, who started competing at nine years old, the minimum age. “I’ve put in so much work for all of this — doing it for nine years and giving up weekends nonstop — so it was perfect timing.”

She said she hopes to continue competing, this time in the higher age groups, but is not sure yet how much she will be able to once she starts school. She hasn’t picked a college but hopes to study accounting, Mancini said.

But before she started leaving school every Friday to travel to competitions around the East Coast, Mancini said, she first had to learn the ins and outs of caring for, let alone competing with, the dogs.

“I actually had never had a pet dog or anything,” Mancini said. “Dogs were totally something new for me.”

Mancini learned the ropes from 2006 Westminster Champion Kathy Kirk, the mother of her sister’s boyfriend at the time. Kirk was looking for help breeding and training dogs, so Mancini decided to give it a try.

At the shows, Mancini would help take care of and groom the dogs before they stepped into the ring. She also learned the technical strategy that goes into showing dogs, including how to run them, show them to judges and where to look as she moves them around the ring.

Mancini said competing can sometimes be stressful, especially at larger shows like Westminster, but she still enjoys it.

“I one hundred percent fell in love with (the dogs) once I started working with them,” Mancini said.

Kirk, along with another breeder, Dotti Cherry, raise the English springer spaniels from birth. The dogs can start competing at six months old.

Liam, whose official name in competition catalogs is Celtic Thunder, is an 8-year-old spaniel that Mancini had been working with for about a year before the Westminster show.

Mancini said Liam had just gotten back from showing in Japan before the New York City competition. He won Westminster’s Best in Breed and went on to compete in the sporting group.

Mancini said Liam is “always happy” running around the ring. “He’s really outgoing. ... and loves showing,” she said. “He’s the sweetest dog you’ll ever meet.”