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HORSE POWER Rodeo ropes in two teens, leads them to the national high school championships

For many athletes, the sweet feeling of scoring the winning touchdown or winning goal is a unparalleled. But for Rachel DeMayo and Brittany Murphy, there's nothing like a good goat tie or pole bending run.

"It's the best feeling . . ." DeMayo starts, ". . . when you're at a rodeo and you make a good run," Murphy finishes.

DeMayo, 16, of Youngstown, and Murphy, 15, of Middleport, tried to get their rush from other sports but ultimately settled on High School Rodeo. The decision has paid off for the pair, who later this month will be the only representatives of New York at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Springfield, Ill.

At the "world's largest rodeo," the girls will compete with roughly 2,000 contestants from 40 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia, all for the chance at $200,000 in prizes as well as $350,000 in college scholarships. Murphy has qualified in pole bending while DeMayo will be competing in pole bending and goat tying.

But for DeMayo and Murphy, it's not just the prize incentive that draws them in. High school rodeo provides a sanctuary for the girls, who train with Melissa Koser at MK Quarter Horses in Youngstown.

"I played volleyball, I swam, I did track, but I don't do them anymore," Murphy said. "It's just more important to be here. It's just so much fun.

"It's just something I would want to do all the time."

Their events, goat tying and pole bending, are unique as far as hobbies for average high schoolers.

Goat tying is a race against the clock. Inside the arena there is a goat tied to a stake with a 10-foot rope around his collar. DeMayo jumps off her horse at a dead run and must pick up the goat, flip it onto its side and tie it up by three legs, a front and two hind. The goat must remain tied for six seconds. If it comes untied, it costs DeMayo a five-second penalty. The goat isn't harmed during the process, DeMayo said.

Pole bending, also a timed event, is similar to running cones on a soccer field. The girls and their horses must run down, weave through poles up and back, then run back. Knocking down a pole is a penalty.

"Not knocking down anything," Murphy said.

"Yeah, that'd be good," DeMayo added. "And keeping the goat tied."

There is no high school rodeo in New York, so the girls travel north to participate in the Ontario High School Rodeo Association. Koser, who went to nationals as a high schooler in Pennsylvania, is in the process of securing a New York high school rodeo association for next year.

In order to qualify for nationals, the girls must accumulate enough points in their event throughout the year to be in the top four in the association. But getting to the top takes hard work and many nights and weekends away from home.

"We spend more time here than we do at home," DeMayo said.

With high school rodeo being less mainstream in this part of the country, it's hard to explain the fun to anyone who hasn't experienced it personally -- like the girls' parents and friends. Thus, they have taken comfort in the understanding provided by Koser and Linda Gargalino, who owns Lazy J Farm. Gargalino also owns the horse Murphy rides, an appaloosa named Abby.

"The girls are me and [my boyfriend] Nick's kids," the 23-year-old Koser said. "We don't have our own, and they will always be like our kids. We treat them like our own. They get to ride our horses, and we put them on the best we can supply, that's for sure, but they have to earn it."

The family environment Koser provides on her 23-acre farm makes it easy to see why the girls have become so successful in such a short amount of time: If practice makes perfect, why not make practice fun? Murphy, who just began High School Rodeo last year, came within 0.4 seconds of the world record in pole bending. DeMayo, whom Koser said she had to nearly force to try rodeo events, is in her second year and will be making her second trip to nationals for goat tying.

"She came here and she was a very good jumper, clearing 3- and 4-foot fences, and one day I made her put a Western saddle on, and I was pulling her teeth out," Koser said of DeMayo. "She cried about it and pouted, and by the end of that summer, she was rookie of the year for our barrel racing association."

Koser's dedication is clearly a labor of love. Her desire to see her sport spread to this area is obvious, and she provides a chance for anyone who is willing to learn with one $25 lesson. The girls pay their way in work around the farm and work to get sponsorships from local businesses to cover the entry costs to their rodeos, a fee that totals $2,000 a year. Koser requires all her girls carry a B average in school, although that's never been a problem for Murphy and DeMayo, who score straight A's.

"For what we give out, they give it back to us 100 times more in effort," Koser said. "All we ask of them is to have fun and put forth the effort, and we'll give them all we have."

"We're all just kind of like a family," DeMayo said. "It's just so fun. Me and Brittany just goof around all the time, and Melissa is really supportive with everything and she helps us out with anything she can. I even wrote a hero essay about her last year in school."


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