The Northeast rodeo student-athletes took a gamble on joining a brand-new program, but they have the opportunity to build it from the ground up.
So far it’s paying off, with a solid foundation. There are 18 students in its inaugural season, and the first meet is this weekend in River Falls, Wisconsin. The fall season extends until the first weekend of November, and spring seasons will be at the end of March, April and May, with finals in June in Casper, Wyoming.
Head coach Fenton Nelsen said recruiting for the team was a unique process because he didn’t have a facility to show at the time or the program’s history to share.
“Everything these kids ... were following was just a trust and a belief they’d have somewhere to go in the fall. All the kids I have this year are extremely brave,” he said. “It amazes me how much trust they put into me, that there was going to be a facility and place to practice and keep their horses when they got here.”
Since Nelsen started as head coach on Feb. 18, he put in work to make a complete practice arena, which is at Sandy Rock Arena north of town — smoothing over the surface area with equipment to break up clods and level it out.
The arena is busy throughout the day with practices from Monday through Thursday. It’s open from 6 to 10 a.m. for women to practice barrel racing techniques. Most of the athletes spend about two hours in each practice, Nelsen said.
Men’s practices are in the afternoons and evenings from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. They will compete in bareback riding, bronco riding, team roping, calf roping and steer wrestling, and they spend about an hour and a half in each practice.
Rodeo athlete and first-year student Heath Calvert of El Dorado said he’s impressed with Nelsen’s work on the arena.
“It’s really good — I came down here when coach first got the place,” he said. “He put in work and put in a lot of effort and time and made it look great.”
Calvert, who competes in calf roping and team roping, has been in rodeo since sixth grade and “was on horses ever since I was born.” He’s studying pre-chiropractic to be a horse and human chiropractor.
Calvert’s goals this season are to make it to the top five in his events at regionals and qualify for nationals in team roping.
Calvert said he’s already seen a lot of improvement among team members in the first few practices.
“I think we’re going to get a lot better. We have a lot of newer kids and every day they’re improving,” he said. “I think by the end of the season, we’re going to see a lot of improvements from the beginning.”
Rodeo takes a lot of work and commitment, Nelsen said, and he wants others to understand that it’s a sport unlike any other.
“Bringing a horse to college is a whole ’nother bag of responsibilities,” he said. “A softball player brings their duffel bag and shoes, but with a horse you bring your truck, trailer, tack, food and water every day, he needs hay; there’s a lot of things that go into it.”
Taking care of a horse involves regular visits to a farm store, as well as a place to board horses, which adds a lot of extra time and expense.
“(It’s a) 24/7 job,” Calvert said. “It’s a lifestyle, though, gotta live it.”
But it’s all worth it for the rodeo athletes, including Zane Patrick of Bartlett, who came back to get a second degree partly because he heard about the rodeo program. He got a degree in electrical construction and is now studying athletic training.
“I was actually a student at Northeast, graduated last year and came back for a second degree since they have the rodeo program,” Patrick said. “Nice to get an education and (do) rodeo.”
He said support on campus has been strong so far.
“I think we’ve got a lot of support on campus. It seems like if anybody hears about the rodeo team, they talk to you and ask you about it,” he said. “Everybody’s curious about it.”
Establishing a positive team reputation on campus is one of Nelsen’s main goals for the program as it gets started, although he also hopes to help at least two students get to nationals.
“In my first year, I want to emphasize (that) the kids be the best-represented team on campus,” he said. “How they act, how they present themselves, doing the right things when no one else is looking … letting people know they’re here for the right reasons.”