Scholars in Saddles
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The Long, Happy-Hoofed Haul of College Rodeo in SD
The long way, the long way, but ridin’ it together / I never cared a feather for the length and never shall,
With happy hoofs that shuffled to the singin’ saddle leather / And laughin’ wind that ruffled miles of chaparral. - The Long Way, Badger Clark
It could be said that folks unaffiliated with rodeo may not be aware that barrel racing, bronc riding or goat tying are collegiate sports. Unlike the bracket madness surrounding college basketball and the high stakes predictions placed on Heisman Trophy takers, college rodeo runs a decidedly lower national profile. But for rodeo teams in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) from the Great Plains Region – comprised of South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin – the trail of the rodeo student athlete to College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) is considered no less demanding or competitive by its participants than the road to the Rose Bowl or the Final Four.
Many of the South Dakota high schoolers who compete in state rodeo finals in Belle Fourche have their sights set on continuing to rodeo in college. In South Dakota, college rodeo teams compete from Black Hills State University, Mitchell Technical Institute and South Dakota State University. Ron Skovly of Brookings has been SDSU’s Rodeo Program Coordinator for eight years. A 1996 graduate of SDSU’s agronomy program and rodeo team (he made the College National Finals in 1995 and 1996 in team roping and calf roping), Skovly is a staff of one who oversees a rodeo team of 50-plus student athletes. In addition to coaching and coordinating practices, Skovly directs travel, raises funds, and recruits high school seniors – while also competing himself as a calf roper in South Dakota and Minnesota. Scouting for new talent from area high schools, Skovly tries to attend as many regional rodeos as possible, but the schedule conflicts with college rodeos mean he reviews many candidates by campus visits, emails, and cell phone videos. Because SDSU has had a rodeo program since 1952, an active club of alums sends kids, grandkids, and donations to help keep the program strong.
For kids who want to get a degree and ride rough stock or work cow horses after high school, Skovly says the entry process to the Great Plains Region is extremely competitive. Skovly says fourteen first-years are committed to SDSU for the fall, after 10 graduated last spring. “The caliber of high school students who come through the college ranks in this region makes it tough,” says Skovly. “Last I heard, there are between 1,300 and 1,500 4-H Rodeo members in South Dakota alone. If you take half or a fourth of those kids for the three schools in South Dakota with rodeo, we couldn’t pull them all anyway. The work ethic that comes out of this region is so great – they know how to practice and manage their time. Other colleges like the region, too. That’s why you hear a lot of South Dakota hometowns rodeoing for other colleges from all over the United States once you get to the CNFR.”
And by “pulling” all those students, Skovly is being literal. For the regional college rodeos that take place each weekend during the fall and spring seasons, some 55 team members travel almost 6,000 miles in total, pulling between 60 to 70 horses in as many as 18 trailers. Skovly says SDSU is fortunate to be in the “bulls-eye” of the Great Plains Region – many schools must travel further. SDSU’s team operates on a self-supporting budget. Student athletes supply their own horses, trucks and trailers and spring for everything from hotels and fuel to vet and horseshoeing bills. Team members raise money through fundraisers and by cleaning Brookings’ Swiftel Center after events. The money goes to small scholarships (no “full rides” exist outside the arena) given to the top six points earners for men and women.
Coach Ron Skovly, Ryan Knutson, Toronto, SD; Hope Petry, Hudson, IA; Dani Aus, Granite Falls, MN; Madison Rau, Mobridge; Jacey Hupp, Huron and Jim Bob Ellsworth, Ft. Thompson.
Then there is pulling weight academically. SDSU’s team members must carry 12 credits. Majors on the team currently vary from engineering, pharmaceutical studies, early childhood education, nursing, radiology, ag and animal science and others. Skovly says the team setting and work ethic inherent to rodeo helps to keep kids on the straight and narrow. “With 50 to 55 other team members, if somebody’s not going to class or not studying, they’ll tell each other right away, ‘don’t get behind as a freshman.’ Or, the student’ will let me know or the professors will let me know. Ninety-nine percent of the time we catch it before it’s too late,” says Skovly. Daily four-hour practices, animal care chores, and studying mean sacrifices in other areas. “They have to have excellent time management,” says Skovly. “They probably don’t get to go out as often, attend games and anything like that for the fact that every hour counts.” Carrying off such a strenuous workload is not always possible. “There will be a few going into pharmacy and nursing, and between clinicals and classloads, not all of them rodeo all four years,” says Skovly.” And that’s what they’re here for, is to get the degree.”
Sara (Ohm) Hainzinger can attest to the commitment college rodeo takes and the community it provides. A native of Huron, Hainzinger started out riding her dad’s roping horse and attending 4-H rodeos when she was eight-years old. After competing in state high school rodeos, Hainzinger and Blackie, her black quarter horse, were on SDSU’s team from 1988-1992. Hainzinger’s definition of “ease” may differ from a lot of seniors moving away to college. “Being on the rodeo team made the college transition pretty easy,” says Hainzinger. “I had the South Dakota 4-H Finals Rodeo in Ft. Pierre the weekend I moved to SDSU. We left the rodeo, drove home to Huron, loaded my stuff for college, and headed to Brookings. While Misty (Korkow) and I were unpacking, people from the rodeo team came to our rooms to welcome us to SDSU.” While Blackie made a great college companion, he also increased Hainzinger’s workload. “Having a horse was a big responsibility because they had to be fed and watered two times a day – even when school was called off when the weather was bad,” says Hainzinger. “You didn't want to ask other people to do your chores because it made you look lazy.” Practice, team-building and academics were the rules of the ring. “My coach Tom Richter made sure the whole team was close knit,” says Hainzinger. “We not only practiced and traveled together as a team, he also made us do team aerobics, weight lifting and study sessions.”
Hainzinger says learning to juggle studying, rodeoing, and producing a major rodeo (SDSU’s team markets, sets up and tears down SDSU’s annual Jackrabbit Stampede) has served her well. Hainzinger and her husband Hank (a PRCA calf roper she met at the Dodge circuit Finals Rodeo in college) and their three kids own a cattle ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma. “Rodeo has had a tremendous influence on my life,” she says. “I married a cowboy. Lifelong friends were made during those hot, dusty, long rodeo weekends in the 80s and 90s.” Hainzinger still counts former SDSU teammate Misty (Korkow) Clair and 1990 SDSU Rodeo Queen and 1992 Black Hills Stock Show Queen Brenda (Bryan) Johnson as her best friends.
Watching high school rodeo finals, it’s hard to conceptualize the desire for more and harder work, but college can be a turning point for even die-hard riders who also want a degree. “When you come out of high school, it’s a dream to rodeo in college,” says Skovly. “By the time we get to the last rodeo in the fall, the dreams kind of change a little bit. Or being away from home, the class schedule and homework is a little different. It’s morning, noon, and night. And it’s not for everybody.”
Watch highlights from the 2017 South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals Thursday, July 6 at 8pm (7 MT) and Sunday, July 9, at 1pm (Noon MT) on SDPB1.
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South Dakota State High School Rodeo Championship programming is made possible with support from Black Hills Energy, Dacotah Bank, Toustone Energy Cooperative and Xcel Energy.