The Utah High School Rodeo Association state championships are a big deal for the athletes. Besides the honor of winning their state championship, they are riding for the opportunity to compete in the national tournament.
The state finals started Wednesday at the Wasatch County Rodeo Grounds in Heber. The top qualifiers in each event will compete for a spot on the national team. Utah has won the national championship the last three years, and the riders on the 2009 team will be looking to make it four in a row later this summer in Farmington, N.M.
Spencer Wright of Milford is the reigning high school national saddle bronc champion and will be a heavy favorite in the Utah final this year.
Wright comes from a family with a rich rodeo tradition, and as the youngest of four siblings, Spencer has picked up some of their tips and tricks along the way. Older brothers Jesse and Jacob are twins and have won first-place titles on the college level circuits. Cody Wright is currently on the Wrangler Pro Rodeo Tour, and is the saddle bronc world champion.
Another rider to keep an eye on is Jade Hafen, a junior from Dixie High School. Hafen, who competes in team roping, is coming off a bout of temporary paralysis that turned his life upside down.
About eight months ago, complications with his nervous system turned into paralysis. About six months ago, he regained feeling in his body. Hafen is looking forward to competing and winning at the state event to come back full circle from the bleakest of times.
Tim Bingham of Fremont High is the 2008 state champion and is looking to go back to back in 2009. Bingham has already signed with the Professional Cowboy Bull Riding Association and will start next spring after graduating early. Tim's little brother, Tyler, a sophomore, will compete against him this year, but Tim is not about to take it easy on him.
On the girls' side of competition, watch out for Shaylee Grover of San Juan High. Grover competes in rodeo, volleyball and basketball. In addition to her athletic prowess, Shaylee also is a rodeo club president, a Future Farmers of America president, the yearbook editor and a 2009 Sterling Scholar.
Milli Hughes of Enterprise High School is a two-time state champion in the goat-tying competition and is looking to win her third title in 2009. Milli has three brothers who rodeo professionally and she is looking to be the fourth Hughes sibling to go pro in a couple of years.
The Wasatch County Rodeo Grounds are located at 590 South and 600 West in Heber City, with action beginning at 10 a.m. and continuing at 7 p.m. today and Friday.
On Saturday, the cow cutting championship round begins at 1 p.m. and the championship performance kicks off at 5 p.m.
In addition to a week of rodeo competition, the Utah High School Rodeo Association will award more than $20,000 in scholarships.