Wall to Wall Champions: Small South Dakota town supports youth in and out of the arena
There must be something in the water in Wall, S.D. Or maybe it’s in the dirt—arena dirt—because a lot of youth rodeo champions hail from the area.
Or maybe it’s because of the people the youth are surrounded by in Wall.
Several Wall kids have done very well in the 4-H, junior high, and high school ranks, as well as a number of other youth rodeo opportunities.
Saddle bronc rider Cash Wilson is the National High School Rodeo champ, as well as the Little Britches Rodeo World champion.
Tee Merrill has qualified for the Junior NR twice, the National Junior High School Finals twice, is a four-time event champ at the S.D. Junior High School Finals, a state 4-H goat tying champ, and has been to the Little Britches World Finals several times.
Burk Blasius was the 2018 4-H State Rodeo Junior All-Around hand, and his older brother Blair finished second in the flag race; their younger brother, Jace, also competed.
Kipp Cordes went to the state 4-H finals in four events and finished the year third in the breakaway and reserve all-around. His little sister Piper finished the year as state 4-H breakaway champ and reserve all-around, and their youngest sibling, Gatlin, also qualified for state 4-H finals.
Cowgirl Trista Reinert was the state 4-H all-around reserve champion.
And the list goes on.
Matthew Heathershaw was the 2018 state junior high tie-down roping titlist and won second place in the breakaway roping at the state 4-H Finals, and his older brother Malcom won the steer saddle bronc riding at the state junior high finals two years in a row and tied for fifth at the National Junior High School Finals Rodeo this year.
Emilee Pauley, through her high school years, won the breakaway roping once, was rookie of the year her freshman year (2015), and won the all-around title three times. Her sophomore year, she finished eighth in the nation in the goat tying. In 4-H rodeo, Pauley won the goat tying in the junior girls division. And her older sisters, Mazee and Mattee, have lists of accomplishments just as long.
Four Wall youths have qualified for the Junior NFR in Las Vegas this December: sisters Libby and Brooke Diedrichs, Tee Merrill, and Wynn Schaack; Brooke and Wynn have qualified for the semi-finals for the American next February.
So why so many rodeo athletes with accolades in Wall? Residents say there are several factors.
Wall has held play days since the mid-1980s, says Mary Williams, a long-time Wall Rodeo Booster Club member. The play days are held four Thursdays in July, for kids ages 0 to 18 years old, and include an announcer, judges, and concessions. About sixty kids participate each play day, and parents are involved, too. “If you have a kid in it, you’re going to help,” Williams said. “You might flag barrels this week and next week you might be setting up poles or holding a goat.”
Play day events include the barrels, poles, breakaway, goat tying and team roping, and according to another Wall resident, Lori Shearer, there has never been a year in the last thirty-plus when there weren’t play days. “It makes me pretty proud to think that when someone is done (chairing the play days), there’s someone ready to take over,” Shearer said.
Wall, population 800, boasts one of the nicer rodeo arenas in the area. An outdoor facility, it has two arenas, a grandstand, new concessions building, new bathrooms, and “ample parking for contestants and spectators,” said Brett Blasius, president of the First Interstate Bank in Wall and father to Blair and Burk. “We have a facility that is second to none in western South Dakota,” he said. Just this year, they redid both arenas with steel pipe and nearly new bucking chutes. “It’s very, very nice. We’re a community of 800 people, so we’re pretty proud of it.”
The town hosts a variety of rodeos: a high school practice rodeo and a regional rodeo, a 4-H rodeo, and a South Dakota Rodeo Association event there. “We get a lot of activity at the arena because of the quality of the grounds,” Blasius said.
Funding for some of the projects at the rodeo arena comes from the First Interstate Greater Wall Foundation, a community foundation that awards grants to non-profits within Wall and the surrounding area.
It takes people to make things work, and the people in the Wall area support the kids. The area boasts many rodeo contestants, including those who have done well at the circuit and national levels: brothers JJ, Ryan and Cory Elshere, and Mike Heathershaw, among others. They bring their kids and their expertise and help the young ones practice. Heathershaw, a former saddle bronc rider, has brought in steers for the younger boys to practice steer saddle bronc and bareback riding, and Mike and his wife Anita bought a bucking machine. “I don’t know how many kids have been out there, in our shop, riding the bucking machine,” Anita said. “We’ve even had college kids show up to ride it.”
Anita Heathershaw, a teacher at the Wall school and mother to sons Matthew and Malcom, said there’s a contagious “winning attitude” in Wall, “that you’re going to give one hundred percent. The kids have learned if they want to do well in rodeo, they have to practice, and our kids do. Most of these kids will have other sports practice after school for several hours, and then, in addition, will go home or to the rodeo arena to practice their rodeo events, too.”
Expectations are high in Wall, she believes. “You’re expected to do well and practice hard. If you want to win, you know you have to practice.” It rubs off in the other sports, too; the Wall High School football team is ranked first in the state, and Wilson, the National High School saddle bronc champ, was the anchor on Wall’s 2018 State B champion medley relay team and placed fifth at state track in the 400 meter race, as well as playing football, basketball and wrestling.
Rodeo athletes seem to do well in other sports, says Emilee Pauley, a 2018 graduate of Wall High School with numerous rodeo accomplishments. She teaches younger kids how to tie goats, and says that rodeo kids are good at sports. “Most of the kids who rodeo are competitive in team sports. That’s because rodeo teaches you to be a competitor, to win, to have the determination to get it done.” She played high school basketball, and “I wasn’t the greatest but I worked hard. My work ethic came from rodeo.” This past summer, Pauley won the state high school goat tying, cutting, and all-around titles.
The school has a banner with rodeo champs listed on it, Pauley said, and “you don’t go to many other schools and see” banners like that.
The town supports its rodeo kids, says Blasius, “and we see it in more sports than just rodeo. But it is our western heritage here, and we’re proud of it. We realize that we’re a small community, and we realize we’re fortunate and not every community can experience it to the level that we do. We’re very proud of that.”
Williams, as she volunteers at the rodeos and play days as part of the Booster Club, loves to look out over the grandstands and see the grandparents and great-grandparents watch their kids. “There is solid support for rodeo in our area, and it’s deep rooted. It’s cool, very cool.”