Christopher Wuensch, CWuensch@ExplorerNews.com
An oddity of twisted metal and steel sits in the backyard of Cody Nirschel's Catalina home.
The Ironwood Ridge High School senior doesn't have many places where he can train for the rodeo, so he and his friends dug a hole, fashioned a 50-gallon drum with a car spring and metal bars into a raging bull, and meet several times a week to hone their rodeo skills.
They'll have to use the makeshift bull until the school gets one of its own, which may never happen.
The quandary for Nirschel and his fellow high school rodeo colleagues is more than a lack of equipment and school-based facilities.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association, the organization that regulates all things high school sports in the Grand Canyon State, doesn't recognize the senior's sport and lifelong passion as an acceptable reason to miss class. Nirschel and others who compete in the Arizona High School Rodeo Association are not afforded the same luxuries - including excused time off to compete - as those who participate in AIA sanctioned events, despite the long hours they log on the road or in practice everyday.
There are 59 clubs and athletic teams at Nirschel's high school, including drama, culinary arts, belly dancing and roller hockey, but no rodeo.
The 1,816-student school has been lenient to the senior, Nirschel said, in Ironwood Ridge's defense, allowing him to be signed out of school from time to time to attend a rodeo event.
Nirschel, who practices every day for three to four hours, still has to make up that school time and work, usually in the study periods held before school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
He isn't a lonely cowboy left out on the prairie with no horse. There are more than 270 boys and girls competing on the Arizona High School Rodeo Association circuit who are not recognized by the AIA as participating in a sanctioned sport.
The numbers may pale in comparison to those in AIA sanctioned sports and clubs - more than 17,000 boys played football in 2004-05 in Arizona, while another 12,422 students participated in band. But rodeo numbers are on the rise. Enrollment in the AHSRA has steadily increased over the last three years and president Howard Conner expects the number to surpass last year's total of 274 kids. The number of girls competing has more than doubled over that same period.
"Our girl membership has severely grown," said Tracy Wilson, Vice-President of the AHSRA. "We used to average 30 (girl's) barrel races, now we're averaging 70 to 80."
At Marana High School, which has the highest number of high school rodeo competitors in the Tucson metro area, cowboys and cowgirls are the same as any other student. Once a student reaches 10 absences, excused or unexcused, they go on audit. A student on audit who does not keep up with missed work is at risk for losing credit for that particular class.
Marana High School doesn't administratively approve rodeo-related absences and count them against the student.
"We have some of our students who are involved in some pretty cool stuff," said Marana High School principal Jim Doty. "We understand the value of the things they are doing, but, at the same time, attendance at school is the greatest predictor of success and we certainly wouldn't want to see them doing those things if it's going to hurt what they are doing in school."
Moses Belloc, a senior roper from Marana High School, estimated that the rodeo will cost him between 10 and 11 school days a year, enough to put him in audit.
"This is what most of the kids argue about inside the high school rodeo," said Belloc. "They argue about 'Hey, my friend over here plays football, he got a day off, why doesn't he have to make it up and we do?'"
The AHSRA schedules the majority of its rodeos on Saturdays to alleviate some of the time spent away from the classroom. Rodeos, however, are held throughout the state and sometimes require an eight- or nine-hour drive for those not centrally located. This puts the crunch on students and families to load up the trailer and head out immediately after school on Friday.
"I'll have my stuff packed up the day before on Thursday," said Belloc, treasurer of Marana High School's Future Farmers of America program. "Right when I get home on Friday I'll change, make sure all the chores are done and then we'll leave."
The AHSRA season starts in September and goes through the end of the school year, unlike a sport like cross country, which lasts less than three months.
Marana and Ironwood Ridge, the only Northwest schools with students in the AHSRA, work better with their students than most.
Other schools throughout the state aren't so accommodating.
Brooke Conner found that out the hard way last year as a senior at Willcox High School. She had to make up 38 hours of class time in order to graduate. That's more than six school days.
Conner was no slacker taking advantage of a situation. She finished the year with a 4.3 grade point average, splitting time between multiple rodeo events and as student president for both the AHSRA and Willcox High School. Long trips back and forth to rodeos proved to be the only place to get homework done.
Her hard work paid off in the form of a rodeo scholarship to New Mexico State University.
High school rodeo competitors follow many of the same rules that kids in the AIA adhere to, most importantly, no pass-no play.
To be eligible in the AHSRA, a student must be passing four of their seven classes and hold a GPA above 2.5. Seniors must be passing all of their classes.
"We'll have to miss a rodeo to not be left behind (a grade)," said Belloc. "So we'll work with the teachers and we'll work with the school."
Missing a rodeo is not an option for some students. Each rodeo represents a chance to earn points toward the national meet, held in Gillette, Wyo., every June. With the top four in each local event selected to compete against the nation's best in Gillette, competition at home is tighter than ever. Missing more than two meets often sounds the death knell for a chance to go to nationals, where anything can happen.
Last year, the National High School Rodeo Association doled out between 300 and 400 scholarships at the national meet alone. The organization dispenses $950,000 worth of scholarships each year among its 11,000 students from 40 states, five Canadian provinces and parts of Australia.
Kids in Arizona aren't alone in their struggles with administration, said Kent Sturman, Executive Director of the National High School Rodeo Association. Of the 40 states that feature high school rodeo, none of them are sanctioned by the state, essentially leaving them to govern themselves.
"There are a few schools and school districts that recognize rodeo as a school activity and give them excused absences, but that's on a school by school basis," said Sturman.
Wilson and Howard Conner, president of the AHSRA have discussed their options at length.
"Our plan is to lobby the state school board and see if we can get this sanctioned as a state sponsored school sport," said Wilson.
Adding rodeo to the AIA landscape could be a tedious process.
"It would have to come from the grassroots and the schools would determine if they wanted to have that particular sport," said Glen Treadaway, Associative Executive Director for the Arizona Interscholastic Association. "That's the way our last sports like soccer came on."
If the AHSRA wanted to qualify for sanctioning through the AIA as a club, it would have to follow the same guidelines as a sport. All non-athletic clubs, such as orchestra and drama, are sanctioned under the same bylaws by the AIA.
Rodeo, with an enrollment of fewer than 300 members, would be on par with AIA sanctioned athletics and clubs such as badminton, speech, debate and cheerleading - activities with participation of fewer than 1,000 students.
Penetrating an already saturated sports field may prove the most difficult. The AIA oversees 249,865 student athletes competing in 15 sports and 11 clubs.
The sports that generate the most queries statewide to be added by the AIA are lacrosse and hockey. Lacrosse is the leading candidate, but won't likely be added for years, if at all, said Treadaway.
Further separating traditional high school sports from the rodeo is the enormous cost of the latter. Nirschel's outfit alone cost the senior $1,645 for helmets, chaps, boots, protective-vest and spurs. Throw in the cost of animals and their upkeep, trailers and the escalating price of gas and high school rodeo can become a cripplingly expensive sport.
One option to ease the costly burden is to find a sponsor. Most sponsors will only pick up the tab for a student's entry fee into a rodeo, however, which usually costs between $20 and $25 per event.
Only two students in the AHSRA had sponsors last year, said Wilson.
High school competitors aren't restricted to the AHSRA. Weekends for many are spent at non-AHSRA rodeos, where they can make a quick buck or two riding and roping. That's how Nirschel affords the bulk of his equipment, winning as much as $500 in an event.
When his time at Ironwood Ridge is up and he turns 18, Nirschel will follow the money and test his mettle as a bull-rider in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association and Professional Bull Rider's circuit. He's already living the lifestyle. On Oct. 16, he began his day in the Junior Rodeo portion of the Desert Thunder professional bull riding competition at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. When that ride was complete, the lanky cowboy made a mad dash to compete in Phoenix in the high school rodeo being held at the Arizona State Fair. All thanks to the metal bull in his backyard that now needs a new spring.