In just two years, the Northern Lights College rodeo team has established itself as a place for northern B.C. students to compete while studying, and has produced multiple champions and buckle winners.
The team should continue to grow in its upcoming third season, with Vice President of Student Services Todd Bondaroff predicting the team could have at least 12 student athletes in 2020-21, double the numbers just a season ago.
"This is the most interest we've had in the team since we started," Bondaroff said. "The excitement and momentum has been tremendous, and the willingness and support from our community has been amazing."
The team was started to give students a place to compete in rodeo at the post-secondary level without having to leave home, and if they do want to stick around for a year before leaving the Peace region, the NLC team gives them a chance to keep their skills up to par.
Not only has the team accomplished that goal, but it's established a working relationship with the High School Rodeo Association of B.C. as well, allowing Grade 12 athletes who take an NLC course the chance to compete in the Canadian Inter-collegiate Rodeo Association (CIRA) as well.
Bondaroff said people from outside the region are turning to NLC as an option for college rodeo as well.
"We had more athletes from out of town stay with us last year and that was a nice draw," Bondaroff said.
Of course, any success the team can have next season depends on there being a season at all. The COVID-19 pandemic has put the immediate future of all sports leagues in jeopardy and the CIRA is no exception.
For now, the college is awaiting word from the CIRA as to what will happen. But Bondaroff said the college is looking at options to keep the team sharp and active throughout the fall in case the rodeo season is delayed or postponed.
One benefit NLC has is that it's the only school that competes in the association in B.C., and as Alberta currently has more relaxed outdoor gathering restrictions than B.C., it provides hope that the athletes at Northern Lights would be able to compete, so long as they're willing to travel to Alberta.
"We think in the outdoor rodeo arena there is an opportunity to do rodeo safely and we hope the association finds a way to make it happen," Bondaroff said.
A welcome change for the team is the number of athletes who compete in multiple events, instead of just one or two.
Keaton Collet, a strong barrel racer, qualified for the 2019 CFR in breakaway roping, the first year it was available outside of high school or college rodeos, and she'll be one multi-event on next year's team, her third season at NLC.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, NLC had plans to grow the rodeo program in other ways as well. They were set to host the first IRA rodeo in B.C., but that will likely be pushed back a season.
"We had a date booked, we were excited to bring competitors to our region and support the economy, but we'll make sure we get that rolling again as soon as we can," said Bondaroff.
Bondaroff said the idea of a local college rodeo team is still new to the students, but they are getting used to it each year.
"The CIRA is a step up. These athletes are learning to go to school and survive on their own, but now they also have to figure out how to fit rodeo in and travel and everything that goes wtih that," Bondaroff said. "Plus, it's a different caliber of competition and can be intimidating, but they are starting to get the lay of the land."
Email sports reporter Dillon Giancola at firstname.lastname@example.org.