High School Rodeo
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life in so many ways, and now it’s changing the state high school finals rodeo scene.
For high school rodeo athletes in North Dakota and Wyoming, there will be no state finals; their associations have decided to cancel them. Montana and South Dakota will host finals; Nebraska is still working out the details.
For the lucky kids in the Big Sky state, their finals will be held June 1-6 in Baker, Montana.
But it didn’t come about without tremendous effort from adults in the association, and a shift in perspective for Lane Yeager, in his twelfth year on the board of the Montana High School Rodeo Association, and in his seventh year as president.
The Choteau, Mont. man didn’t agree with some of the guidelines that have come about, due to the pandemic, and as he fought to hold state finals, voiced that opinion. But he switched gears pretty quickly.
Fighting what he considers violations of civil rights, “was the approach I took at first,” he said. But it changed. “I took a hard swallow,” he said. “I was out horseback, and I took a hard look at it, and said, well, I’ll give in and follow it and take care of these kids. I’m not going to win this way, so I backed up and took a different route. It took a while but it started to take hold.”
He and family and board members made phone calls to the state capital, calling everyone they knew in the ag department and the stockgrowers association. “I found everybody who knew somebody.”
Montana governor Steve Bullock had announced that youth sports were allowed to practice with no crowd, but no high school rodeo could take place, because it was determined that high school rodeos had crowds. “As you know, high school rodeo doesn’t have a crowd,” Yeager said. Yeager and board members helped get health department guidelines to classify high school rodeos as a youth sport with no crowds, with the assurance that they would follow the local county health board’s guidelines.
“It wasn’t easy, and each meeting took a long time trying to explain to the county health board that we would follow the local board’s wishes,” Yeager said.
Some of the guidelines for the Montana State Finals include everyone wearing a mask, except for the rodeo athlete during his or her ride or run; trailers must be parked twenty-five feet apart; different families cannot co-mingle, and everyone who enters the grounds must have their temperature taken and fill out a brief questionnaire as to any symptoms they may have that are COVID-19 related. They also must give their name, address and phone number, so that if someone gets the virus, there is a tracking plan. No spectators will be allowed, except for immediate family. As much paperwork as possible will be done online, and plexiglass will be installed as barriers in the rodeo office. Handwashing stations will be positioned around the rodeo grounds.
Guidelines will be enforced, Yeager said. “If a parent or a kid doesn’t follow protocol, you get one warning. The second warning is, get in your pickup and get out of town. It’s not what I want done, and I don’t like it, but if we want to rodeo, we have to follow it.”
Yeager and others in the association also put pressure on the local community in Baker. They asked local businesses to send letters in support of state finals to city officials and come to the city board meeting. “The businesses and people spoke,” he said, “and with the letters (the board) got, it was an onslaught. It was unanimous.”
The high school rodeo athletes in North Dakota and Wyoming aren’t as fortunate; their state finals have been canceled. North Dakota made the decision on May 16, after a board meeting.
After reviewing state guidelines for large gatherings and PRCA protocol for the pandemic, the committee considered “the difficulty in implementing, and more importantly, enforcing them,” said Marc Kress, president of the North Dakota High School Rodeo Association. “That’s what it came down to.”
They also considered the fact that if someone at a high school rodeo spread the virus, there could be consequences. “If you can’t enforce it, and if somebody gets sick, our fear was of the legal ramifications on the association and the community of Bowman,” which would have hosted the state finals June 10-14.
North Dakota has a split rodeo schedule, with fall and spring rodeos. All of the spring rodeo season was canceled, so the board will have to decide on the criteria for who goes to Nationals, but most likely the top four in each event after the fall season will qualify for the National High School Finals, Kress said.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make, Kress said. “I get choked up just talking about it. I can deal with mad parents, I can deal with all kinds of things, but when I think about the kids and what they have lost, that’s tough on me. That’s what tears me apart.”
Wyoming’s state finals that would have been held June 1-6 in Gillette were canceled on May 8.
Nebraska is in hopes of holding their state finals, although they will not be held in Hastings, where they’ve been for the past dozen years.
They’re working to be in Burwell June 18-20, and have compiled a set of pandemic guidelines, following the examples of the PRCA’s protocol and youth baseball, said Jason Mathis, president of the association.
“We’ve been in contact with the health department in Burwell, and they’re OK with it,” he said. The health department “thinks by that time of the month, the restrictions will be lifted a little more.”
Some of the guidelines the Nebraska association will use are wearing face masks, keeping the number of people down behind the roping boxes and the chutes, and having hand sanitizer set out for people to use. There will be no spectators, and food will not be sold on site.
Like North Dakota, Nebraska had a fall season, so athletes have accumulated points. No spring rodeos have taken place, and if the state finals can’t be held, the top four in each event would qualify for Nationals, Mathis said.
The health departments follow the advice given by the governor, and Mathis knows that Governor Pete Ricketts will ultimately make the decision as to if the state finals can take place. “We need our governor’s blessing if we want to have a rodeo.”
Mathis, like many others, is frustrated with the pandemic and the uncertainty about what might happen. “I’d just love give the governor heck and go on, but I’m dealing with a bunch of kids and the association, and I don’t want to drag it into the dirt. If it didn’t go right, I’d be in trouble. If it went right, I’d be a hero.”
The governor’s office, with whom he is in regular contact, has said that new decisions may be made on June 1.
Another bright spot in high school rodeo, alongside Montana, is South Dakota. Their state finals are a go, to be held June 16-20 in Ft. Pierre.
South Dakota’s season is set up differently than the surrounding states. It hosts practice rodeos throughout the spring, with regional rodeos held the first and second weekends of June in the four regions of the state. In order to qualify for state, athletes must earn at least three points in an event at regionals.
Two practice rodeos prior to this week, and four others chose to cancel on their own, said Ann Sunderman, secretary for the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association, but the association didn’t cancel any others.
The association met this week to decide on the safety guidelines for regional and state rodeos, and if, for some reason, regionals and state can’t be held, Sunderman said the board will decide how national qualifiers will be selected. But she was confident that at least regionals would take place, “unless something very strange happens.”
As of press time, the National High School Finals Rodeo, to be held July 19-25 in Lincoln, Neb., had not canceled. James Higgonbotham, executive director of the National High School Rodeo Association, wasn’t available for comment. The National Junior High Finals Rodeo, to be held in Des Moines, Iowa, June 21-27, is canceled.
For Yeager, with the Montana association, the guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are not ideal but he’s willing to live with them.
“If you want to rodeo, follow (the guidelines.) You can do this for your kids.”
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