The MPCC Rodeo Team has grown considerably over the years. Pictured back row, left to right are: Lane Kennedy, Orleans; Riley Weehler, Maloy, Iowa; Rhett O'Connor, Paxton; JW Schroder, Taylor; Hunter Baker, Cattaraugus, N.Y.; Shane Weber, Burwell; Kaleb Fritz, Creighton; Tyler Murray, Wheaton, Kan.; Rowdy Moon, Sargent; Chandler Comfort, Gem, Kan. and Tanner Freeman, Dunning.
Middle row, left to right: Coach Garrett Nokes, Trenton Solida, Phillipsburg, Kan.; Garrett Wickett, Norfolk; Keaghan Gomes, Pukalani, Hawaii; Kevin Chavira, Imperial; Sawyer Strand, Harrisburg, S.D.; Ryan Cox, North Platte; Kris Rasmussen, Riverdale; Reece Weber, Valentine; Garrett Heinert, Papillion; Cord Hesseltine, Halsey and Coach Dustin Elliott.
Front row, left to right: Zach Huerta, North Platte; Sam Elliott, Prineville, Ore.; Nate Bausch, Waterbury; Trey Engel, Silver Creek; Wyatt Killion, Ainsworth; Cyler Dowling, Newell, S.D.; Shania Macomber, Whitman; Kaylen Smith, Allen; Kaile Jacobson, Haiku, Hawaii; Charmane Macomber, Whitman and Mara Christian, Elwood.
The Mid-Plains Community College Rodeo Team will kick off the fall rodeo season today with a record 32 members. That's quite an accomplishment, considering the college has only had a rodeo team for three years.
"The first year I coached, there was just one student rodeoing – a bull rider from Overton named Austin Cox," said Dustin Elliott, rough stock coach for the MPCC Rodeo Team. "We drove my car to rodeos and shared a hotel room."
At that time, 2013, Elliott wasn't coaching a full-fledged athletic team, but rather a rodeo club started at the college three years prior. The MPCC Board of Governors upgraded the club to full team status in time for the 2014-15 season.
It was and continues to be the only athletic team at the college designated as an "area" team, rather than campus-specific.
Another change in 2014 was that Garrett Nokes, a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier from McCook, joined the team as its timed event coach. That freed up Elliott, a world champion bull rider, to focus on the rough stock events.
Having two coaches of their caliber at the helm has provided a significant boost to team numbers, but it's not the only reason students want to rodeo for Mid-Plains. The success of the rodeo program as a whole has also garnered national attention.
"I give Tyler Viers a lot of credit for the growth of the program," said Elliott. "He won the region for us in 2014 and became our first qualifier for nationals."
Ever since then, word-of-mouth has been one of the team's biggest forms of advertising. As team members share their experiences with friends and family, connections pop up across the country.
"We have a connection now to Iowa because of Riley Weehler, from Maloy," said Elliott. "He's had success at Mid-Plains, and people in his home state have seen that. We gained members from Hawaii, thanks to Aukai Kaai, and this year added members from New York and Oregon."
The Oregon student is Sam Elliott, Dustin's nephew from Prineville. Two of Sam's friends are considering joining the MPCC Rodeo Team next year.
"Recruiting is getting to be a lot easier just because of how far the program has come," Dustin said. "The way we travel, the way we practice, the academics the school offers – our program is selling itself."
He's looking forward to the day when the rodeo team can have alumni parties. Until then, however, his primary focus is on the current season.
"I'm excited about this year," said Dustin. "We have a number of kids on our team that I'm confident can qualify for nationals. I bet we can send eight. Which eight, I don't know yet, but I think we should win first, second and third in steer wrestling and bull riding this year."
Three of the sophomores, Reece Weber, of Valentine, Trey Engel, of Silver Creek, and Rowdy Moon, of Sargent, competed at the College National Finals Rodeo last year, while many of their teammates fell just short of qualifying.
"Those returners are so motivated," said Dustin. "I see a difference already from last year in the practices, the competition level and the mentality. Everyone is more business-focused, and it's going to be really cool when we win the region as a team."