COOLIDGE – Perhaps Steven Gaona, one half of the nation’s best college team roping pair, said it best.
“This is rodeo country.”
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Welcome to Central Arizona College, home of one of the top collegiate rodeo teams the past 46 years.
The junior college with a full-time enrollment of 3,800 is a breeding ground for professional rodeo athletes.
“We have plenty of practice stock and plenty of places for them to ride,” said coach Joe Moody, a former pro rodeo cowboy.
Walk past the baseball fields and to the right you will find the rodeo facility located on campus. The convenient location allows student-athletes easy access for practices.
“There are very few schools that have the rodeo right on campus,” said Moody. We also have a lot of local jackpots around here for places for the kids to compete other than just college rodeo.”
This year’s men’s team is ranked No. 1 in the Grand Canyon Region with an eye on the June 17 College Nationals in Casper, Wyoming. Central Arizona has won three national championships and multiple individual championships.
The program has such a rich history that rodeo legends frequently stop by the practice facility. That includes world champion bull rider Charlie Sampson and heeler world champion Clay O’Brien Cooper.
“It means a lot,” said Gaona, “but I still want to beat them.”
Gaona and Pedro Egurrola are No. 1 in the nation in collegiate team roping.
They teamed up when they were young growing up with horses. But after high school they went their separate ways.
“My family has a ranch and all there really is to do is rodeo and I picked it up from there,” Gaona said. “I did my own thing and it was better than going and riding a bike or something. It keeps you doing something over there.”
By the time he was 15, Gaona was hooked. At CAC he has even competed professionally.
Egurrola got into team roping when he was 10 but didn’t follow Gaona to CAC. But once Gaona saw the school was a place to be for rodeo and academics, he convinced Egurrola to join him.
“He kept telling me to come,” Egurrola said.
Egurrola has not regretted his decision.
“Coaches here are good. Everything is good around here,” he said. “This is the best school to come to for roping. I want to keep winning and hopefully win the nationals this year and maybe the next.”
At Central Arizona College it’s not all about rodeo. The athletes help in the community by reading to young kids and teaching them roping on dummies.
“It kind of means a lot really just because, I mean, when I was younger we never had rodeo people go up to our school or nothing like that,” Egurrola said. “Or it would be some kind of other people and I was never really into any other sports like that. So I’m sure that there are some kids that really appreciate it and it means a lot.”
Added top-ranked breakaway roper Lakota Bird: “I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about rodeo, especially the young people. And to tell them, we do this because we love animals and we are here to compete with the animals and we take as good care of them as we can.”
Rodeo lured Bird to the school, where she found out quickly that academics were just as important. “Once I got here it was clear that this is a great school for academics.”