GONZALES — The Texas Junior High Rodeo Association (TJHRA) is set to race back into Gonzales on May 25-June 2 at J.B. Wells Park. Along with the trailers full of horses coming to town will be their young riders and the parents that support them, bringing in extra bucks to local stables.
Longtime rodeo supporter and Gonzales High School senior Cullen Eppright is looking forward to the week, although he'll be competing up in Abilene at the high school version of the event. Regardless, it's a great thing for Gonzales to hang their straw hat on, he says.
“Texas is a large state, with a large portion of its (TJHRA) membership coming to town,” Eppright said. “It brings huge economic revenue to Gonzales. It's a very positive thing for the town.”
If he sounds official in rattling off economic incentive numbers where most teenage rodeo stars would be content talking about their horse's abilities, it's because Eppright is the former president of the National High School Rodeo Association, a position he held last year. He spent much time traveling the nation — Indianapolis, Las Vegas, West Virginia and Phoenix as examples — in his official duties, so it is natural that he sounds more business than bronc. But that doesn't mean he's trading his Wranglers for a pair of business slacks.
“I'm certainly not going to quit anytime soon,” he said.
He spent much time as president talking up the sport and the beneficial impact it brings to students and their communities. It was a lot of time and effort, but the amount of discipline that it teaches the youths makes them act “beyond their years,” he said.
While Eppright is nearing his high school career in Gonzales, he's set on furthering his education at Corpus Christi A&M next year. He plans to spend the first year focused on his education rather than rodeo, but says he might come back to it competitively. After all, he's been in the arena since the third grade. And while collegiate rodeo may not be on the immediate horizon, it is something than many colleges participate in, including San Houston State, home to last year's national champions and another Gonzales grad, Loni Lester, who won a couple of saddles and a championship ring for her efforts at breakaway roping and as “all-around cowgirl.”
“That was kind of cool. A little different,” she said on winning the ring, as opposed to the traditional belt buckle.
She too is approaching her graduation date and remembers her rodeo competition time fondly in Gonzales.
“It was very nice driving home every night and not having to get an RV spot,” Lester said of having the home-arena advantage. She also commented on the benefits to the area of having such a large event, where businesses and restaurants are full of competitors and their families.
Lester got her rodeo start in junior high while attending play days with friend Kalli Davis. Her parents weren't in the rodeo scene but totally supported their daughter when she took an interest. A couple of high school nationals appearances and her win at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming no doubt paid off whatever time was put into her early years training here in town and competing.
Lester has ridden a competitive rodeo scholarship through her Sam Houston days. Next up is to try and qualify for the National Finals Rodeo and she is getting a strong line of horses ready for her push.
“It's a long road,” she said. “That is the ultimate goal.”
Meanwhile, J.B. Wells Park is saddling up for another TJHRA week and is looking for volunteers to help welcome the hundreds of people that are expected for the competitions. Anything from assisting with welcome signs, greeting rodeo guests and handing out welcome buckets is up for grabs as a volunteer and would allow one to fully grasp the magnitude of the event.
To volunteer, call the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce for an emailed link to the sign-up page, or visit https://www.signupgenius.com/go/60b0a4da9a928a0f85-tjhra.