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People fill the grandstands at the South Dakota State Fairgrounds to watch the action during the National Junior High Finals Rodeo on Tuesday in Huron. (Matt Gade / Forum News Service)

National rodeo converges in SD

HURON, S.D. — The best junior high rodeo athletes in the United States and beyond are competing in South Dakota this week for the right to call themselves national champions.

The National Junior High Finals Rodeo is underway at the South Dakota State Fairgrounds in Huron and continues through Saturday. In all, 1,068 boys and girls in grades 6-8 and age 16 and under are coming to central South Dakota for the event, which includes 14 different rodeo events and shooting sports. The junior high finals include participants from 42 states, five Canadian provinces, Mexico and Australia.

Tate Hoffman, 13, of Highmore, S.D., had one of the shortest trips to the national event, traveling 70 miles east on U.S. Highway 14. The eighth-grader-to-be is one of South Dakota's 41 qualifiers for the event, which is being held in the state for the first time at the junior-high level.

"We can run home, if we need to, and grab what we need. I like the travel, normally," said Hoffman, who is competing at nationals for the second time. "But regardless of where we're at, we have a good time."

Hoffman is participating in tie-down roping and ribbon roping, and like many participants in the campgrounds this week, he had a rope in his hands and was near a practice steer in his free time Tuesday.

"It's just something I really enjoy," Hoffman said. "We all have a good time and it's a great chance to meet some new friends."

His South Dakota teammate, Rance Bowden, of Belle Fourche, S.D., said he's enjoyed the chance to compete in a national event for the first time. He said there's a lot of support for the athletes, regardless of which state they call home.

"Everyone's real supportive. There's a lot of people and there's a lot of them that are here for you," said Bowden, 12, who is competing in team roping and boys breakaway.

In addition to the contestants, there are hundreds of horse trailers and campers on the fairgrounds. The non-rodeo events include a trade show, recreational events, a talent show and a contestant dance.

The Junior High Finals Rodeo is put on by the National High School Rodeo Association and has been contested since 2004. Executive Director James Higginbotham said South Dakota is obviously no stranger rodeos, but the large site at the fairgrounds made Huron a good location. The city will host the junior high nationals in 2019, as well.

"The facilities folks work really hard to get the place ready for an event of this size and so far, it's been really good," he said.

A native of Arkansas and a rodeo lifer, Higginbotham has been involved with the NHSRA for 32 years. He said putting on a showcase event for young rodeo athletes is something he takes pride in.

"The junior high and the high school (events), we're about the young people," he said. "We offer them an alternative lifestyle, and we think rodeo is a good thing in organized sports. That's what we're about."

The national finals include two long rounds, the first of which will conclude with the first performance today. The second round will begin at 7 p.m. today and continue through Saturday. The top finishers will have an opportunity qualify for Saturday's short-go finals. The winners receive awards and can receive college scholarships.

The rodeo takes place in front of the grandstand at the state fairgrounds, with two arenas set up. A rough-stock arena runs parallel to the grandstand and includes the steer riding, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, goat tying, pole bending and bull riding events. Directly next door, a timed-event arena is oriented north and south and hosts the roping events (breakaway, tiedown, ribbon and team roping) and chute dogging.

The field includes nearly 1,900 entries, with some rodeo athletes competing in three or four different events. In most cases, the top three or four participants at a state junior high rodeo qualify for the national event.

"We have two or three events that you don't normally see in other places and I've been asked why you would have these events at a rodeo," Higginbotham said. "And my philosophy is that if you get a kid on a horse, you keep them off the streets."

Individual performance tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children.

"I always say if I can get you here one time, I can get you back," Higginbotham said of the event. "Because it's that exciting."

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