Samantha Russo began competing in pageants a little more than a year ago.

Now, the 22-year-old graduate of Emerson College, thinks her inexperience in the world of evening gowns and judge's interviews will serve her well when she comes to Atlantic City in September to compete in this year's Miss America Pageant.

"I think it is a good thing, that I'm not such a seasoned veteran that I am stuck in my ways," said Russo, who captured the Miss New Hampshire crown Saturday. "I'm open to suggestions. I'm also the kind of person to get in there and really give it a try."

It was that attitude and enthusiasm that helped Russo win the state crown, said Brenda E. Keith, president and executive director of the Miss New Hampshire Scholarship Program.

"The judges enjoyed her talent very much and also praised her interview as genuine, engaging and intelligent. They also said that she really lights up the room with an incredible smile when she walked into interview," Keith said.

Right now, Russo is the favorite to win the title of Miss America 2014. That's because she's the only state winner to be crowned so far this year.

The Miss New Hampshire contest is the first in a series of qualifying pageants to be held in coming weeks. The new Miss New Jersey will be crowned at the Ocean City Music Pier on June 15. The national competition, which includes winners from the 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, culminates with the crowning of Miss America at Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall on Sept. 15.

If Russo were to win, she would be the first contestant from the Granite State to capture the Miss America title.

Russo sees that challenge as a reason to get excited rather than an excuse to be intimidated.

"That would mean the world to me. To be able to bring home the title of Miss America - that would be quite the feat," she said.

Russo, from Nashua, N.H., began competing in pageant in February 2012. At the time she was a student majoring in broadcast communications and minoring in marketing communications at Emerson, located in Boston, Mass.

"A professor of mine recommended I try out, so I figured I would give it a shot," the brown-eyed brunette said. After graduating, Russo realized competing in the state pageant - and the scholarships that come with winning - could help pay off her "significant amount of student debt." So she continued in the Miss New Hampshire Pageant system while working as a marketing assistant for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats minor league baseball team in Manchester, N.H. Russo aspires to be a sportscaster - she covered spring training and the Boston Marathon while in college - or to continue in sports marketing. She's also considering eventually getting involved in representing athletes as an agent.

Having taken chorus classes in high school and performed in an a cappella group while at Emerson, Russo chose to sing for the talent portion of the competition.

Her performance of "Don't Rain on My Parade" won her the talent section in the preliminary competition.

"Samantha has an excellent talent, including great vocal ability coupled with a very entertaining stage presence. I think that this will bode well for her in Atlantic City in September," King said.

Going against 27 other contestants, Russo also won her swimsuit competition during the preliminaries.

Still, capturing the crown came as a surprise.

"I was shocked," she said. "I felt that I had a great showing in all my competitions. I was really happy with that. I'm so happy the judges saw all of my hard work. Now I'm ready to give the other girls a run for their money at Miss America."

During her year as Miss New Hampshire, Russo will champion tobacco education as her pageant platform. Russo said she chose the topic based on watching her mother, Cindy Russo, try to quit smoking.

"Just watching her try so hard to quit, and not being able to, it's been hard on my family," Russo said. "I'm an active person. I love to go running, I love to go kayaking. It's something my mom doesn't enjoy doing because of her tobacco addiction."

Russo said she's excited to be heading to Atlantic City for Miss America's return to its longtime home.

"This is the perfect time to come back. It's right after Hurricane Sandy. It will be great for that area, and so great for the Miss America Organization," she said. "I've never been to Atlantic City, so that's really exciting as well."

Contact Steven V. Cronin:

609-272-7242

SCronin@pressofac.com