ALVA, Okla. – When Stockton Graves walks to the practice arena in this Oklahoma community, he can’t help but smile.
This is hallowed ground for Graves, a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier who attended college at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Two years ago, he returned to campus to coach the rodeo team at his alma mater.
“It’s a pretty neat deal to be able to coach here and to be part of this program,” Graves said. “We’ve got some great kids, and I’m really excited to see what we have ahead of us.”
The 2013-14 Central Plains Region season begins at the Colby (Kan.) Community College Rodeo, set for Friday, Sept. 20-Sunday, Sept. 22. The Rangers ride into northwest Kansas with a team that features all but one College National Finals Rodeo qualifier from last year’s team.
“I’m pretty pumped about this season,” Graves said. “With our new recruits coming in and with the team we have from last year, I think we can be really good.”
The newcomers will match up well with the veterans, which feature seven contestants who competed for the intercollegiate championships last June: women’s all-around talent Micah Samples of Abilene, Kan.; goat-tiers Trisha Price of Faith, S.D., and Karly Kile of Overbrook, Kan.; men’s all-around hand Ryan Domer of Topeka, Kan.; heelers Chase Johnson of Snyder, Texas, and Dustin Searcy of Mooreland, Okla.; and header Ethan McDowell of Mooreland.
“I really think both our men’s and women’s teams will be better this year,” Graves said. “If I can keep them focused and after the goals we set, I think we’ll be just fine.
“We add four bull riders to the team, but I think our timed-event guys will be under the gun as far as the men’s team goes. I think they realize that it’s good that they’re in that position and understand that it boils down to winning.”
As student-athletes, the college experience generates outstanding opportunities to learn in every phase of life. Classwork is important, but so is the development as a young person.
In the case of cowboys and cowgirls, it’s a matter of succeeding in all those aspects. Many have aspirations of competing in ProRodeo, following in the footsteps of alumni like Graves who have experienced the pinnacle of the sport.
“If you want to be successful at rodeo, you have to be winning to win,” he said. “No matter what level you’re competing at, you need to realize that. It takes hard work, and I think they understand that.”
It’s that way in life, too, especially in rodeo. Professional cowboys and cowgirls compete in a sport that rewards the upper echelon. There are no guaranteed paychecks on the rodeo trail; one only earns money when he or she performs better than most of the field.
“The good news for us is that these kids realize they can compete and win,” Graves said, noting that having so many returning finalists has helped develop a hunger among the team members. “Maybe a little of the pressure is off their shoulders, and now they know it’s going to take more to go back to the college finals. I think they’re ready to put in the work it takes.”
The first test is this weekend.