Highlands cuts rodeo, child care

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By Dave Kavanuagh and Martín Salazar
Las Vegas Optic

New Mexico Highlands University’s rodeo team had its celebration — of five members qualifying for nationals in six events — cut shorter than an 8-second bull ride this week.

The team returned from this weekend’s Grand Canyon Regional only to learn that the Highlands rodeo program is being suspended indefinitely at the end of the current season.

“The university does not have either adequate facilities or a sufficient operating budget for athletics to properly support the program,” Highlands President James Fries said in an emailed statement to the Optic. “Head coach Jordan Taton and the team have done an excellent job, especially given what they’ve had to work with, and I appreciate their hard work and dedication to the sport of rodeo, but they need and deserve more than we can provide at this point.”

The decision to suspend the rodeo program is part of a round of budget cuts that will also result in the closure of the Highlands child care center, which has been losing money.

Highlands spokesman Sean Weaver said President Fries was hesitant to approve that budget-  cutting measure, but decided to move forward with it because of the private childcare center that has opened up in Las Vegas. Weaver said most of the children being cared for at the Highlands childcare center are getting subsidized rates through a Children, Youth and Families Department program, and the same rates would apply at the private childcare center.

Highlands officials are also mulling the future of instructional sites in Española and Raton, which are also losing money.

Regents last week voted to not renew the university’s Española lease. Weaver said 34 students are taking classes at the Española site. He said university officials are deciding whether to transition any of those students who aren’t graduating to the Highlands Center in Santa Fe or whether to attempt to find another location in Española.

As for Raton, Weaver said Fries is planning a visit there next week to speak to community leaders about ways to keep that site open.

HU will assist in transition
The announcement by the school administration that the program would be discontinued at season’s end caught the team by surprise.

“It came at a sad time,” said Jordan Taton, who’s been the rodeo coach since June 2011. “They came back (from Las Cruces, site of a successful Grand Canyon Regional event) all excited, and then they found out about the program being cut.”

Fries said he hopes the student athletes on the rodeo team will continue their studies at Highlands.

But, he added, if they choose not to, “we will assist them in any way we can if they wish to continue their athletic and academic endeavors at another institution.”

The university’s decision isn’t sitting well with members of the rodeo team.

“I’m pretty pissed off,” said junior Brady Dinwoodie, whose win in saddle bronc riding at regionals secured a berth in the upcoming College National Finals Rodeo. “This came as a surprise. We’d had a good year, and then this. Nobody had told us anything.”

The program had been on the chopping block once before, just a couple years after its introduction during the ill-fated presidency of former state Sen. Manny Aragon. Aragon’s administration brought both rodeo and wrestling to expand NMHU’s athletic offerings. But after questions surfaced about the financial viability of keeping those teams afloat, regents considered cutting them early in Fries’ presidency.

Supporters of both wrestling and rodeo rose to the occasion, and funding was found to provide a reprieve to both programs.

One area of concern that never was fully addressed was the issue of rodeo facilities, something mentioned this week by Highlands administration in the announcement about the cut.

Taton said the team had been using the San Miguel County Fairgrounds to practice. In previous seasons, the team had used a private rodeo arena under agreement. But the venues had never been used to host a full home event.

“It worked out good,” Taton said of the fairgrounds. “The county was good to work with. The facility itself wasn’t ideal, by any means. But the kids made it work.”

Finances apparently also remained a sticking point. Taton said she didn’t know a precise budget figure for the program, but she did say funding of rodeo varies from other sports.

“Our budget’s a little different in rodeo,” she said. “(But) we fixed up the arena we practiced in.”

Taton said the team participated in fundraising efforts to help sustain the program, noting that Farmway Feeds had been particularly generous with its support.

The school lists nine men and seven women as current members of the rodeo team. Thirteen of them are listed as underclassmen. Ten are on scholarship. Exactly where they will all end up is a question as yet unanswered.

Taton said the signing date for college rodeo athletes is March 1, meaning the window has closed in many cases for transfer possibilities.

Still, she said, there have already been schools expressing interest in luring team members to their programs.

“They are good kids,” Taton said. “They are good in the arena and great in the classroom.”

For example, junior Katie Hamann is a student of the year in Highlands’ chemistry department and recently earned an internship to study in Paris.

Taton said she’s not sure where everyone on her squad will end up. She said some may stay to finish their studies but most will likely transfer to other schools.

“They are very polite, they work hard and they’re willing to get their hands dirty,” she said. “And that’s not something you see all the time.”

As for Taton herself? “We’re changing directions,” she said of her family, which has combined to earn multiple national championships in the sport as well as professional association memberships, “but rodeo is what we do.”