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Keiki competitors thrilled with rodeo’s return

Lane Kamakana (right) and Ryzaiah-Jahko’b Botelho post a time of 7.894 seconds in high school boys dally team roping during the Hawaii High School Rodeo Association Maui District show on Saturday at Kaonoulu Ranch. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

OLINDA — The competitors at the third event of the year for the Maui Youth Rodeo Organization on Saturday at Kaonoulu Ranch realized just how fortunate they are.

The smiles on their collective faces said as much.

A total of 66 young cowboys and cowgirls — 30 in the high school ranks, 16 in the junior high division and 20 in the keiki age group — competed in the two-day Hawaii High School Rodeo Association event. Several more 4-years-old-and-under children got onto the arena turf to participate in leadline events with adult helpers.

While sports sanctioned by the Hawaii High School Athletic Association have yet to see any competition this academic year, the HHSRA competitions on Maui have a 12-event calendar that is fully underway with guidelines, rules and protocols in place due to COVID-19 concerns.

Kalena Kehano, a King Kekaulike High School sophomore, flew to a 3.86-second time in girls breakaway roping. While she had just recorded the second-fastest time of her career, Kehano was mostly just happy to be competing in the sport she and her family love.

Kalena Kehano ropes a calf while posting a time of 3.86 seconds in high school girls breakaway roping. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Well, I mean it’s awesome because when this whole COVID started I really didn’t think we were going to have a season,” Kehano said. “And it was a bummer, you know, because this is my life.”

Kehano climbed off her horse Stacks with an appreciation for the whole scene at the arena just below Oskie Rice Arena on Olinda Road.

“I started when I was 5 years old in leadline,” she said. “I know how much fun it is for the little ones.”

Kehano said she feels completely safe in the outdoor environment, which came under a bright sun on Saturday.

“Oh yeah, this is my home ground,” she said. “It keeps me sane. I feel bad for all the kids that have to quarantine and it’s awesome because you’re not staying in the house the whole day. You’re getting to go outside, rodeo. With family, friends, everything.”

Elizabeth Miranda rides to a time of 4.412 in junior girls breakaway roping. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Carden Academy eighth grader Elizabeth Miranda knows that the opportunity to compete is special in the pandemic environment that the world is currently under.

“I think it’s awesome and we try to follow the rules as much as we can so we can keep doing this and not get shut down,” Miranda said as she sat atop her horse Bogie. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and effort from the entire rodeo community.”

Miranda started rodeoing as a kindergartener on the Big Island before moving to Maui in the second grade. Her best events are breakaway roping, goat tying and pole bending, and she dreams of competing in college.

She went to junior high school nationals for five different events in 2019, and her brother Daniel Miranda is a three-time national qualifier.

“Oh, rodeo is a ton of fun,” Elizabeth Miranda said. “I love the teammates and our friendships that I make. I have friends from all over the country, just from rodeo. I have friends from out of country, too. I think rodeo is the best sport ever.”

Ka‘apu­ni Aa­ro­na competes in junior boys breakaway roping on Saturday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Elizabeth Miranda is close friends with Laura Coflin, a Mauian who finished second in girls cutting at the National High School Rodeo Finals in Guthrie, Okla., in July on a trip that included Daniel Miranda. Coflin’s finish is believed to be the best ever for a Hawaii competitor in any event at the NHSFR.

“Laura was at my junior high finals (two years ago), she was always there supporting me,” Elizabeth Miranda said. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know where I’d be — she’s a great inspiration to me. What she did was awesome for the state and Maui district.”

Miranda also felt right at home on Saturday.

“I feel really safe out here,” she said. “My parents say there’s a difference between country and city germs. Country germs are a whole bunch of dirt and cow pie. I feel totally safe out here.”

Ka’apuni Aarona, 11, a sixth grader at Kalama Intermediate School, said he has been “rodeoing since I could walk” as he sat atop his horse Ehu.

He is a new member of the junior division.

“It’s super fun to rope and stuff,” he said. “I finally got in to juniors, so I get to rope a lot.”

Emy Ferguson is the adult representative for the Maui district in the HHSRA. She said the road to staging a competition like this one is not easy in the COVID-19 world.

“It’s huge for us to be out here because we have to go to the mayor, we have to keep our numbers down, our attendance,” Ferguson said. “So we have to split up the rodeo, split up the age groups so that not everyone is here at the same time, put up all our social distancing signs. It’s hard.”

While the Maui County season finished in the 2019-20 season, the state finals on the Big Island were canceled due to the pandemic.

The current season is going strong thanks to businesses like Kaonoulu Ranch, which sponsors the leadline division for the youngest competitors. The inside of the arena is filled with signs of fellow sponsors.

The sport is a family tradition for most of the competitors, including the Fergusons. Daughter Emily, a King Kekaulike student, and father Kelvin are both deeply involved.

“My daughter is a junior this year and she’s been doing it since she started sixth grade,” Emy Ferguson said. “My husband did high school rodeo, him and his sister did high school rodeo, so it’s more his family tradition. … The sport has grown dramatically. I’d say in the last eight years we went from having less than 10 kids to over 80 kids in the membership.”

Any competitor who finishes in the top four of any event at state earns a trip to nationals, which can lead to collegiate opportunities in the sport. Emy Ferguson noted that the Miranda family is at the forefront of helping the Maui County delegation compete on a national stage.

“MYRO sponsors the kids,” Ferguson said. “They give them travel vouchers, we have one fundraiser for the year and we have all these other sponsors as you can see on the fence — they have all contributed, helping these kids be able to say ‘yes’ when they do qualify for nationals. We want to be able to say yes, we don’t want to have to worry about getting the money to do this, how do they get horses, stuff like that.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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