When the National High School Rodeo Finals begin on Friday, July 17 in Guthrie, Oklahoma, six competitors from Central Oregon are slated to compete.
Powell Butte's Kennedy Buckner, a junior, who won the girls state all-around competition, will make the trek to Oklahoma where she will compete in pole bending and breakaway roping. Buckner won the state title in both events.
"I'm really excited for the opportunity to go rodeo in a new place and I'm very grateful that my parents are taking the time to haul me all that way," said Buckner, who is making her fourth trip to nationals.
Joining Buckner at the national finals will be Culver's Coy Aldrich, Cord Gomes of Antelope, Powell Butte's Jace England, Prineville's Wyatt Wood and Powell Butte's Deaglan Lundquist.
Aldrich won the boys all-around championship and will compete in tie down roping, steer wrestling and team roping at the national finals. Aldrich and roping partner Brayden Schmidt, who is from Washington, won the team roping title, while he finished second in tie down roping and fourth in steer wrestling.
Most years, I went just in the team roping and last year I went in calf roping as well, but this year, going in three events, I've been practicing a lot more and I've been able to compete at a much higher level on may calf roping and steer wrestling now," said Aldrich, who is making his fourth trip to the national finals. "I'm older, bigger and stronger, so that has helped a bunch and I think I have a lot better chance this year going back there."
Gomes, who is making his first trip to nationals, will compete in just one event. However, the senior won the state championship in steer wrestling and has high hopes for his first trip to nationals.
"My goal is to throw two steers down and make it back to the short go and then hopefully throw a third steer down and get to see how things turn out," he said. "Just have clean runs every time and let the chips fall. I've been wanting to do this since I was a freshman and I'm super stoked to get there."
Wood is just a sophomore, but he punched his ticket to the national finals with a second-place finish in bareback riding.
"My goal is to just ride every horse jump for jump and just try to cover each horse and focus on one horse at a time," Wood said. "I hope to eventually make it to the short go and possibly place there."
England, a senior, and Lundquist, a junior, both qualified for the national finals in saddle bronc riding.
"My goal this year is to get something rode and place," said England, who placed second in the event. "I'm beyond excited for this opportunity."
Lundquist, who placed third in saddle bronc, said that he is also excited about the opportunity.
"It's going to be a pretty cool deal down there in Oklahoma," he said. "My goal is always to go back there and win, but I would like to make it to the short go and the top 10."
The competition almost didn't happen. First the COVID-19 pandemic canceled much of the spring rodeo season. Then, in late May, the NHSRA received bad news. The scheduled finals location in Lincoln, Nebraska, was not going to be available. The Lancaster County Health Department made the decision that due to COVID-19 the arena would not be available.
The Nebraska notice read in part, "This decision is based, in part, on the risk of the spread of COVID-19 that would be posed to the citizens of Lincoln and Lancaster County that would results by briging thousands of people from dozens of states and, potentially, several countries together. In addition, the large number of people expected to attend, the close proximity those individuals would be in, and the length of time individuals would be at the event are some of the factors causing serious concern with the LLCHD. Because this event has the potential to overwhelm the health resources of the community, not allowing the event to take place is necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 in Lincoln and Lancaster County.
The NHSRA leadership immediately put out feelers looking for a new location to host the event and in early June the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie was chosen for the event.
Not only did the national finals nearly not happen, the Oregon finals were in jeopardy as well. However, after missing most of the spring season the OHSRA was able to run a pair of rodeos in Prineville on back to back weekends in mid June, allowing the OHSRA to crown state champions and qualify competitors for the national competition.
"It was a huge disappointment to not be able to compete in all of our spring rodeos," said England. "Our season was cut short, but we made the best of what we had."
Aldrich was also disappointed that competitors lost a large percentage of the rodeo season, but noted that it ended up making the state finals more fun.
"It was kind of an unknown for danged sure because you didn't really know if you were practicing just to practice or if you were actually preparing for a rodeo coming up," he said. "But it was a lot more fun state finals because normally you go into the state finals and there are two or three events that a couple of kids dominated all year, but they have a bad finals, but they still end up winning because they had enough points accrued, but this year it was pretty cool going in there because it was anybody's game. There was a lot more pressure because you had to be good. It wasn't something that if you didn't do good it was still going to work out. You had to perform to the best of your ability every time without backing down."
Although all six athletes were disappointed to not be able to compete in their full season, they all said that they are ready for the national finals.
"It was really difficult having most of our spring rodeos canceled because if you didn't have a good fall then you weren't in a good position for state," Buckner said. "But it wasn't hard getting practice because we had school canceled too. In fact, I felt more prepared than usual. To get prepared for nationals, I'm just really focusing on making sure my horses feel good and are prepared for a long trip to a very different climate in Oklahoma."
"To get ready for nationals, I've rode my spur board every night to fine tune my form and I've been receiving private instruction," England said.
"I'm pretty excited," Wood added. "I'm just practicing every day and getting some new equipment in and breaking that stuff in. I'm in awe that I'm going to compete against some of the best rodeo people in the country and even in the world."
You have to have a 100 percent clean slate when you get to nationals and perform at your highest level and then let the cards fall where they fall. My goal is to get to the short go in all three events and then hoepfully come back with a national title in one or two events or maybe an all-around title. I'm pretty excited to have one of the best chances I've had when I go back there. I'm on pretty good horses this year and I'm competing at the top of my level, so I feel like I have a pretty good chance this year."
Aldrich added that he believes that rodeo is more intense than other sports.
"It's a lot more of a risk and a lot more work than any other sport," he said. "You know, preparing your horses and it's a lot more intense than any other sport. That's one thing that a lot of people don't understand. It can be very rewarding because you can look at a lot of money (as a professional), but it costs a lot to get there, so if you don't win it puts a pretty big dent in your pocket sometimes."
Although they are concentrating on the national finals right now, all six athletes say that they intend to continue to compete in rodeo once they get out of high school.
Aldrich plans on attending Blue Mountain Community College, in Pendleton, in the fall.
"My plan is to go there this fall and rodeo for them and hopefully make the college finals and go back to Casper, Wyoming, for that, as long as everything is a go with all the COVID stuff," he said. "Hopefully in a couple I can go pro and then my goal is to make it to the national finals some day. If that's not your end goal then what's the point of doing it."
Gomes plans to attend Treasure Valley Community College, in Ontario, in the fall, where he hopes to rodeo and play baseball, while England has not yet announced where he is planning on attending college, but also hopes to compete in both college and eventually PRCA rodeo.
The High School National Finals will continue through Thursday, July 23 when champions will be crowned in all 13 events.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.