April 30, 2003 11:00 pm
OUT OF THE CHUTE: Eastern's Kristi Case (of Elgin) practices breakaway roping Tuesday at Mavericks Arena. She will be one of the competitors this weekend at the 36th annual EOU Rodeo. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
OUT OF THE CHUTE: Eastern's Kristi Case (of Elgin) practices breakaway roping Tuesday at Mavericks Arena. She will be one of the competitors this weekend at the 36th annual EOU Rodeo. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

Some of the best college cowboys and cowgirls in the Northwest will converge on La Grande this weekend for the 36th Annual Eastern Oregon University Rodeo.

The rodeo represents stops No. 8 and No. 9 on the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association's Northwest Regional tour.

The festivities kick off Friday morning at Mavericks Arena with a one-day NIRA Regional rodeo. Slack will begin at 11 a.m. and the performance will take place at 6 p.m.

Then, the EOU Collegiate Rodeo will run Saturday and Sunday. Saturday's slack will begin at 9 a.m. with the performance set for 5 p.m. Finals will be held Sunday at 11 a.m.

The six men's events will include bareback riding, saddle bronc, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and team roping. The women's events are goat tying, team roping, breakaway roping and barrel racing.

EOU rodeo head coach Russ Evans said the team has 18 members this season.

The men have had a strong season so far. EOU has tallied 566 points, fourth in the Northwest Region behind Walla Walla Community College, Blue Mountain Community College and Treasure Valley Community College.

"The (men) are doing really well. They could easily have gotten into third. That's not out of the question yet," said Evans. Treasure Valley CC sits in third with 788 points. Both Walla Walla and Blue Mountain are out of reach for first and second.

While the women are in eighth place, Evans said there is a lot of potential there, too.

"The women are darn sure capable of doing it," he said. Both the men's and women's teams are young and graduate only a couple of competitors.

Evans said the Eastern kids are doing great, especially considering that they don't have an indoor practice facility like most of the other colleges in the region. It's been difficult to find days to practice this year because it's been such a wet spring.

"The community would be greatly served by an indoor arena," said Evans. "We're praying for sunshine this weekend."

The stars of the team are Lee Felder and and George Gillespie, both Wrangler all-stars.

Gillespie, a 2002 College National Finals Rodeo qualifier, is a senior saddle bronc and bareback rider. Felder, a senior saddle bronc rider, is a two-time national ICA and NPRA Finals qualifier.

Felder is fifth in the Northwest Region standings for saddle bronc, while Gillespie is third in the region in bareback and ninth in saddle bronc.

The NIRA Northwest Region closes out its season with its final rodeo next weekend at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds. After that event, the top 10 competitors in each event will qualify for the College Rodeo Championship Series, which takes place May 15-17 in Elko, Nev. From there, the top 10 make it to the College National Finals in Casper, Wyo. June 8-14.

Evans said that there's still enough points to be had this season that most of the Eastern competitors have a chance to move on to Elko.

"They've all got a shot," he said.

Eastern's Derek Freshour is in 10th in the team-roping header standings, Eastern's Jay McCabe is in 10th for team-roping heeler.

In breakaway roping, Eastern's Michelle Maher is 17th in the standings and Katie Ann Garijo is 12th in goat tying. Maher is 52 points out of the top 10, while Garijo is 43 points out.

Local freshman Kristi Case (Elgin) is a breakaway roper. She was a High School National Finals Rodeo qualifier.

Other competitors for Eastern include bullrider Frank Adamek; team roper Rusty Bengoa; barrel rider Melissa Dudley; team and calf roper Jacob Johnson; breakaway roper and barrel rider Liz Johnson; barrel rider Joni Lowe; Megan Maher (barrels and goat tying); Michelle Maher (barrels and breakaway); Heath Martin (bull riding); Aaron Roggenkamp (team roping and bareback); Beckijo Smergut (of Wallowa) is a breakaway roper; while Casey Smergut (also of Wallowa) is a team roper; Heather Thompson is a breakaway roper, while Ryan Thompson is a saddle bronc competitor.

Admission for all performances is $5 for adults, $3 for non-EOU students and seniors and EOU students with valid ID get in free. There are also weekend passes.

— Pierre LaBossire