WALLA WALLA - The spring college rodeo season gets underway Friday with the 41st Walla Walla Community College Rodeo at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds.
About 200 cowboys from around the Northwest Region will be on hand for Friday morning's slack, and performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Also part of the weekend's activities are the Cowboy Breakfast from 8-11 a.m. Saturday, the free Little Kids' Rodeo at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, and the Cowboy's Church at 10 a.m. Sunday.
Warrior rodeo coach Buster Barton said he expects his WWCC team to again be among the top groups in the nation. The Warrior men won the college national team title in 2008, with the women finishing sixth, and the men took third last year while the women again placed sixth.
"We're back once again with a tough team - a younger team," Barton said. "On the guys' side we're a bit younger, but we've had a good winter of practice and gained a lot of ground since our fall rodeos.
"This is the biggest team I've had in the six years I've been coaching here," Barton said of the 54-member WWCC team. "We've had great pratices, and we have a great assistant staff. It's just been a good year, so far."
That bodes well for a return to the college national finals rodeo.
"I'm expecting to qualify both the men and women (to the national rodeo)," Barton said, "which we've done every year (he's been at WWCC)."
Barton said he expects stiff competition from Blue Mountain, which WWCC's men trail in the Northwest Region after the fall rodeo season.
"Blue Mountain has a great team this year," he said. "They had a really good fall, but we should be able to gain some ground on them throughout (the remainder of the 10-rodeo season)."
Barton said Washington State and the University of Idaho also are tough on the men's side.
Leading the Warriors are Nick Gutzwiler, who won the all-around title in the Northwest Region last year.
"He'll be competing in bareback riding, saddle bronc and steer wrestling," Barton said.
And Laine Baze, a bull rider from Benton City, "has been riding really good," he said.
"We'll buck 18 bulls Friday night, it'll be a good rough stock performance," Barton said.
On the women's side, former WWCC cowgirls Jordan Crossley and Manda Mellergaard return to town with the Central Washington University club.
"That's a good and bad thing, starting at a two-year school and then going to a four-year, competing back against you," Barton said of that situation. "That's always interesting. They're two great competitors. I like to see them win, but it's kind of tough when they beat us.
"Our women's team is very strong," he said. "We've got Courtney Frazier, a girl from Touchet. She's back, along with Michele Lyons and Lizz Combs."
Barton said WWCC's rodeo reputation is what brought him to Walla Walla from Nevada. He attended WWCC in 1998-99.
"Walla Walla's always had a great rodeo tradition, and hopefully we can keep that going.
"And we're lucky in that the college has always supported the rodeo team very well," he said. "We have one of the best practice facilities and programs on the West Coast, in not in the nation. These kids get to practice five days a week, year-round. We don't take any time off, and it's really shown in the national standings. It's always nice to see Walla Walla's name mixed in with Texas A&M and UNLV, and those type of programs."