Justin Jarvis represented Eastern Oregon University at the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association National Finals last June in Casper, Wyo. EOU file photo
Six years after being cut, the rodeo program is once again going strong
The sport of rodeo has deep roots in Union County, and especially so at Eastern Oregon University.
After its induction in 1968, the EOU rodeo program had a renaissance of sorts, excelling nationally throughout the 70s and 80s.
But due to budget reductions and a number of other factors, EOU was forced to eliminate its long-storied rodeo program in 2006, leaving a murky future.
But the sport has seen new life at EOU in the last two years.
With the help of JoLyn Scott and Travis Hampton, the club is on the upswing again, highlighted by having two contestants qualify for the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association National Finals last June in Casper, Wyo.
“There was a lot of complicated stuff,” Scott, the club’s current advisor, said about why the rodeo team was dropped in 2006.
“Nobody at the time really fought for it. It kind of went away quietly before anyone really realized it. College rodeo changed a lot through those years. There are a lot less schools involved.”
“Universities don’t look at rodeo as a sport like they used to,” Hampton, the club’s coach, said. “It’s kind of dying out.”
Not at EOU.
Not anymore at least.
Due in large part to a group of students who were hell-bent on restoring Eastern Oregon as a rodeo school, the program has seen a renewed interest.
After it was cut, rodeo became a student club at EOU, with six or eight students having to raise their own money to participate.
As time went on, the numbers dwindled.
Scott said she got involved just as a spare body to sign NIRA papers for the students, but she didn’t think the club was going to maintain enough interest to last.
That changed in the summer of 2010 with the arrival of Ethan Weiser, Seth Shelton and Justin Jarvis.
“Ethan was the first one, all gung-ho wanting to build a rodeo team,” Scott said of Weiser, who transferred from the University of Las Vegas-Nevada.
“He wanted to build a program because everyone has heard of how it was (at EOU) in the 80s. Then Seth Shelton showed up. His dad rodeoed here in the 80s, and his parents went to school here. A few weeks later Justin Jarvis showed up and before we knew it we had five kids that were rodeoing.”
That number forced EOU to be recognized as an NIRA team, which means that contestants can compete for points to go to nationals instead of competing as individuals.
Hampton, who grew up around La Grande and rodeoed at Walla Walla Community College, got involved to help the students with practices.
And here he is, still helping out.
The team is up to 10 student-athletes this year and they hosted their first rodeo since 2006 in October at the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show grounds in Union.
Hampton and Scott were instrumental in setting that up, but didn’t lack for help and support.
“It takes lots and lots of work,” Scott said of organizing a rodeo.
“It takes a good six months to plan and pull it together.”
Scott said the EOLS board let them use their facility, and as a number of sponsors stepping in to help with the event.
It raised $1,100 for the Wounded Warriors fund with the help of Lin Baker, whose donated saddle was auctioned off.
The rodeo was the first of the year on NIRA’s Northwest Region schedule and drew 275 contestants.
EOU finished third in the men’s standings and fifth in the women’s standings.
With the fall schedule (three rodeos) done, EOU is fourth in the men’s standings with 369 points, while Walla Walla Community College, the defending national champion, leads with 1,795.5.
On the women’s side, EOU is sixth with 138 points. Blue Mountain Community College is first with 1,545.5.
The next Northwest Region event will be in March in Walla Walla.
One thing that Eastern Oregon has over the community colleges that it competes against is that it is the only four-year university in Oregon with a recognized NIRA team.
Whereas students can rodeo at community colleges for three years, they have the opportunity to rodeo at a place like EOU for five years.
Hampton said he has seen a big draw in students looking to transfer to both continue with their education and continue their college rodeo days.
“Ninety percent of kids rodeoing in college, that’s why they are going to school, so they can rodeo and have a place to practice and stuff like that,” Hampton said.
“It makes it easier for them to keep rodeoing and continue their education so they can get a good degree when they’re done with it.”
Hampton said that he likes the group of kids who make up the team this year and thinks it is in a good place to succeed down the road.
Right now Weiser leads the bull riding standings in the Northwest Region with 246 points. Cain Smith of WWCC is second with 205.
Shelton, who qualified for nationals last june in bareback riding, is currently 14th in the steer wrestling standings with 32 points.
Shay Lynn Jones is seventh in the barrel racing with 88 points, while Whitley Anne Reece, whose mom rodeoed at EOU, is 10th with 50 points.
Annie Mackenzie, who competed at nationals last year in breakaway roping, is 14th in the event with 55 points and 13th in goat tying with 10 points.
And while the success of the student-athletes is key to the longevity of the EOU rodeo program, it’s also the support of the administration that proves instrumental.
“I think that the coolest thing that we have is the president’s and provost’s support,” Scott said.
She added that President Bob Davies attended every rodeo last season except for one.
“He was the only president to go to every rodeo besides the one,” Hampton said. “I had a pile of students and coaches tell me how neat that was.”
“We all see the big picture of the opportunity to recruit, but you’re also recruiting a different set of students,” Scott said.
“You’re bringing a little different culture and a little history back.”
For a school that has a long history in the sport of rodeo, that bodes well for an increasingly bright future.
One that not so long ago wasn’t so bright.
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