Kerry Popko was hoping to end her high school rodeo career with clean runs at the National High School Rodeo Association national finals July 20-26 in Farmington, New Mexico.
While she was successful in not knocking down any poles during the first Pole Bending go-round, her final high school rodeo ride saw Popko herself end up on the ground after her horse stumbled in deep dirt.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted to end it,” Popko said.
Although Popko did not place in the primary competition, the California team won the NHSRA volleyball tournament and Popko was selected as the most valuable player.
Popko also took home a $500 scholarship from the national organization, giving her three high school rodeo scholarships for the academic year and five total youth rodeo scholarships.
The cowboys and cowgirls who place in the top four at the state level in each event earn a berth to the NHSRA national finals. Popko, who was a senior at Fallbrook High School during the California High School Rodeo Association District 8 season, finished third in the CHSRA state finals June 17-22 in Bishop.
The top five finishers in the district point standings for each event are invited to the state finals, and Popko had finished fourth in the District 8 Pole Bending standings.
The trip to the NHSRA national finals was the second for Popko, who also earned a trip to the national finals in 2006 as a sophomore. Popko and her 16-year-old horse, Banjo, began the 2008 national finals with a run of 20.669 seconds. “It was a nice run. It wasn’t just a clean run. It was fast,” Popko said.
Popko’s first run July 20 was also the first Pole Bending run of the national finals. Her lead held briefly and she settled for seventh in the performance and 28th among the 173 pole benders who had times in the first go-round.
Destri Devenport, who lived in Bonsall from 1998 to 2003, had a time of 20.410 seconds on her first Pole Bending run to take 17th in the go-round and third for the July 22 morning performance.
The competitors are split into six performances for each go-round, and the mirror format meant that Popko did not run again until July 26, giving Popko and Banjo five days between runs.
“He didn’t get to move around a lot,” Popko said.
Popko made occasional 6 a.m. practice rides during those five days, but Popko and Banjo couldn’t prepare for the deep ruts in the dirt they encountered at the July 26 performance. The dirt was dragged after every ten riders, and since Popko was the final rider she was the tenth after the drag.
Banjo tripped as they were approaching the first pole. “He tried to save himself after he tripped,” Popko said. “It threw everything off.”
Popko initially was worried about more than the stumble. “His knee got extended, and I thought he was hurt,” she said.
Popko knew she wasn’t going to complete her run and prepared to dismount. “My foot got stuck,” she said.
The dismount didn’t go as planned. “I gracefully hit the ground,” she said.
“I didn’t even feel like getting back on the horse,” Popko said. “It was a long walk back to the gate.”
Popko had never previously fallen off her horse. “It happens to everybody,” she said.
Popko’s lack of a time in the second go-round placed her 161st in the average among 178 contestants with times for at least one run. She was third among the 20 contestants with only one time.
Devenport hit a pole in the July 24 evening go-round to incur a five-second penalty. She placed 86th in the average.
The national finals includes a volleyball tournament with teams from each state. For the first time in the tournament’s history, California took home the championship. “We always lose in the first round,” said Popko.
The two-day tournament saw California play three matches July 22 and five matches July 23. The matches involved a best-of-three format with games being played to 11 points during the initial rounds and to 15 points during the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals. The matches were played on a grass court.
Popko’s father, Gene, served as California’s coach. “I just gave suggestions,” he said.
Gene Popko had previously won championships as the boys volleyball coach at Inglewood High School. For the past twoyears he has been an assistant coach for the Escondido Adventist Academy boys team. Kerry Popko played volleyball for Fallbrook High School.
The 5’6” Popko was a defensive specialist on the Fallbrook High School volleyball team and during her club career, although the California team at the NHSRA tournament didn’t have official positions. Popko was positioned in the back row for the NHSRA tournament. “I cleaned up being the defense and the server,” she said.
California lost no matches and only two games during the tournament. One of those losses was a 15-1 defeat in the first game of the semifinals against North Dakota, after which the Californians learned to hit the ball to the boys rather than the girls on the Peace Garden State team. California won the final two games against North Dakota and then swept Nebraska in the finals.
“It was really cool to win,” Popko said.
The California players and Coach Popko received pins for their championship. Ariat donated certificates for belts and Wrangler provided the players with jeans.
Popko was selected as the tournament’s most valuable player by the team parents.
Popko was one of eight California competitors to receive a $500 scholarship.
“I’m really happy for it. It’s really going to help me get where I’m going,” she said.
The national scholarship application process included a biography, a 100-word essay, and an interview with two out-of-state judges. Popko had previously received a $1,000 scholarship during the CHSRA state finals, a $500 merit scholarship from District 8 at the district awards banquet, and a $750 Zak Family Ranch Scholarship at the California Junior Rodeo Association banquet in January. The CJRA banquet also included $300 scholarships to each year-end event champion, giving Popko that amount from her 2007 Pole Bending championship.
Popko had also written essays for her previous three championship-independent scholarships, and those essays focused on her relationship with her horse and her accomplishments in rodeo. The essay for the NHSRA scholarships addressed how the scholarship would make an effect on the recipient, and Popko once again utilized her horse in the essay, noting that reduced tuition expenses would translate into more money for feed and for gas to make the weekend trips to see Banjo. “It would help me and my horse come together, and I could spend more time with him,” she said.
Popko will be attending California State University Long Beach and will major in communications. She plans to pursue a career in communications or public relations.
While the top four finishers in the state qualify for the national finals, those who finish fifth through tenth are invited to the Silver State championships in Nevada. Popko competed at Silver State in 2007 as well as at the NHSRA finals in 2006 and 2008. Popko had been an English rider and had participated in equitation, pleasure, and hunter/jumper competition before her seven years in Junior Rodeo and four years of high school rodeo. Popko served as the 2006-07 CHSRA District 8 queen and was the 2007-08 District 8 student vice-president.
Popko’s Fallbrook High School extracurricular activities included serving as the school’s Associated Student Body public relations commissioner for 2007-08, leadership in the school’s Link Crew which helps incoming freshmen and in the Breaking Down the Walls program, and participation in the school’s Invisible Children chapter. In addition to playing on the high school girls volleyball team, she also volunteered as an assistant coach for Escondido Adventist Academy. Popko was in Fallbrook High School’s French Club for three years.
The Popko family moved from Playa del Rey to Fallbrook when Kerry was in first grade. She attended Maie Ellis Elementary School, La Paloma Elementary School, and Potter Junior High School before her four years at Fallbrook High School.
“I’m really going to miss rodeo,” Popko said. “I’m already missing it.”
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