By Will Freeney | memo247365@gmail.com

While much of the Valley still sleeps, five collegiate athletes take to the arena. Concentration lines their faces, intensely focused on the coach explaining the ‘trick’ to success in the skill at hand. They all watch as one of them attempts to execute the technique – ignoring the rays of light cracking through the early-morning dark as the sun finally rises over the horizon. Success. It worked. Long shadows cascade along the dirt where a penknife juts out from the ground – a target placed there by the coach – and a lasso around it. With ropes in one hand and the other resting on their saddles, the riders take their turns. This is the women’s Breakaway Roping team for the Fresno State Bulldoggers.

It’s that time of year again – rodeo season for Fresno as the Clovis Rodeo gears up for its annual event in April.  But April is just the regular finale month of rodeo season for the Bulldoggers. The team will have been roping and riding competitively for several months by then.  If their current momentum continues, their team will still be in first place in their West Coast Division of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (the rodeo equivalent of the NCAA).  On the weekend of March 8th and 9th, Fresno hosted their event in the Division’s schedule and drove their lead wide open – moving from a fraction of a point lead to 750 points.

The Bulldoggers made that breakaway by taking first place in several events.  Colton Campbell (Senior, Klamath Falls, OR) won best all-around cowboy, Mitch Parham (Junior, Fresno) won the Bareback Riding event, and Chris Rosedale, (Freshman, Kingsburg) won Bull Riding. The women were represented as well, with Romey Stuhan (Sophomore, Fresno) winning the Breakaway Roping event.

The field that they have left in their dust comprises colleges and universities from the entire length of the Central Valley and over the hill into Nevada: Lassen College; Feather River College; Butte College; Clovis Community College; Western Nevada College; West Hills College; West Hills College; College of the Sequoias; Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo; University of Nevada, Reno; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and University of California, Davis.

Jessica Cardoza, at home in the Bulldoggers arena 

If you took a look at the competition results, you might have noticed a preponderance of upperclassmen in the list of event winners. They are only a small portion of all the juniors and seniors on the team. There’s also Caden Lehman (Senior), who competes in Calf Roping and Team Roping Events; Justin Wilson (Senior), who competes in Saddle Bronc Riding and Team Roping; and Cersten Branquinho (Senior), who is a Breakaway and Team Roper.

The team already has Lower Division representatives in the standings, though – Romey Stuhan (Sophomore), who, in addition to the Breakaway Roping event she won, competes in Team Roping and Barrel Racing; and Chris Rosedale (Freshman), who won the Fresno Bull Riding event  – no one need fear for the future of the Bulldoggers. In addition to Romey and Chris, there are a number of freshmen already on the team: Philip Kniermie (Calf Roping and Team Roping), Cole Dodds (who took second place in the Fresno Calf Roping event), and a cohort of female freshmen competitors (Andi Poole, Jillian Murray, Haley Wilbur, and the Morgan twins – Hunter and Savanna).

How do these young athletes attain their level of proficiency?  Like any other young athlete – practice.  Coach Uhuru Adem oversees their daily practice sessions, Monday through Thursday, providing invaluable advice and suggestions for improved performance.  For many of his team members, however, practice in rodeo skills goes back much farther than college matriculation or even high school.

Romey Stuhan began Junior Rodeo competition at age five but noted that she was in the saddle with her father while he practiced roping long before that. She has literally grown up rodeo, and it shows in her first place West Coast Division standing in Breakaway Roping – as a sophomore.

Romey Stuhan, winner of March’s Breakaway Roping event

Excellence in any activity is not solely dependent on the longevity of participation, though.  Mitch Parham, the winner of the Fresno Bare Back Riding event, is something of an anomaly.  He began his rodeo career as a college Freshman.  He had participated in 4H in high school, so he had been around horses but never on top of one.  Focused intention and good coaching have made him a rodeo force to be reckoned with, now in his junior year.

As to that coach, Uhuru is new to the team as coach this year, but obviously not new to rodeo.  He is a native of Glennville, who competed in college rodeo at Feather River College before transferring to Fresno State, where he continued his college rodeo career and completed his education.  He, too, has been active in rodeo since kindergarten age, and after his college graduation became active out of the saddle as a coach, first for West Hills College in 2016 and now for Fresno State.  Asked what ‘secret’ he brings to his coaching, he responded, “I think that having a good work ethic helps create success in and out of the arena.”  That work ethic is evident in Uhuru.  In addition to providing competitive advice to his team members, he is the one who drags the arena, smoothing the dirt to make it safe for the horses and their riders.  It’s like mopping the basketball floor or running the Zamboni – only dirtier. And ‘four days a week’ doesn’t adequately convey the time involved in practices, either.  It’s a long day – with some event teams meeting at 6 am, some at 2 pm, and some at 6 pm.  The season is a long one, too, beginning with its first event in October and continuing until the Division Finals in May (and hopefully, the CNFR in June).  But Uhuru made it clear that his team members practice year-round, utilizing the Fresno State rodeo arena whenever it isn’t too muddy and the Animal Science Pavilion when it is.

If you aren’t part of the rodeo community, either as a participant, parent, or observer, you may not be aware of all this activity, just like any other sport you don’t follow.  But how could you live in Fresno and not know about a Fresno State athletic team that’s leading its regional standings?  You do know that the Bulldogs men’s football team won their division title, don’t you?  Well, the low profile is not the result of neophyte status for the Bulldoggers.  They are the oldest student club on campus, founded in 1946 – which makes them older than the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) itself.  When the NIRA was formed in 1949, they held their first competitive intercollegiate rodeo.

Now, 70 years later, they are leading the West Coast Division’s team standings and Men’s All-around (Colton Campbell), Bareback Riding (Mitch Parham), Tie-down Roping (Rial Engelhart), Team Roping (Cole Peterson and Wacey Barrington, heeler) and Breakaway Roping (Romey Stuhan) standings.  They also hold #2 (Rial Engelhart) and #3 (Cole Dodds) for All-around, #2 (Cole Dodds) and #3 (Colton Campbell) for Tie-down Roping, and number two through five (Colton Campbell, Wacey Barrington, Jacob Bairos, Rial Engelhart) for Steer Roping.  At this level of competitive performance, the Bulldoggers should be going to Las Vegas for Division Finals in May and from there to the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in Casper, Wyoming, in June.  Cheer them on.  Follow their saga on the NIRA website (collegerodeo.com).

You could even see them perform in-state, combining a trip to the coast with some rodeo when they compete in San Luis Obispo on the weekend of April 11-13.  And what better warm-up for the 105th Clovis Rodeo on April 25-28 than cheering on your Fresno State Bulldoggers with an ocean breeze?