This possibly was going to be Tonnica Ouellette’s final home performance for the Fort Hays State University rodeo team.

So she wanted it to be a special weekend. That it was, and then some.

A senior from Yoder, Colo., Ouellette will finish her bachelor’s degree in exercise science at FHSU this summer and immediately begin working on her degree in cardiac rehabilitation.

She made the hearts of friends, family and fellow rodeo members skip a beat Sunday in Doug Philip Arena at the 49th annual Fort Hays State Rodeo.

Ouellette came out of the gate fast in the short-go of the goat tying event and finished with a time of 8.3 seconds.

That was good enough to move her all the way up to second in the average, just a half point behind champion Shayna Miller from Oklahoma’s Panhandle State University, the leader in the Central Plains Region. It also helped the FHSU women finish fifth in team standings in the 27-team field.

“To make the short-go in this region is really an accomplishment,” said Bronc Rumford, head coach for the FHSU team. “It’s the largest region and the most competitive region in the country.

“Half a point …” Tonnica said, her voice trailing. While she might have been disappointed coming so close to being champion in her event, her coach wasn’t.

“She’s a competitor,” Rumford said. “But to finish second was great, especially in one of the most competitive events in college rodeo. There are so many variables that can go right, or wrong, in a split second.”

Ouellette, the only FHSU rodeo team member to qualify for the championship round at their home rodeo, was competing for so many more than just herself.
There was her younger sister, Tennille, a fellow FHSU team member who barely missed making Sunday’s goat tying finals, and their mom, Lycrecia, a former FHSU goat tyer herself who drove four hours from her home in Colorado to be with her daughters for the weekend. There was her older brother ,Tyrell, who lives in Texas and wasn’t able to make the trip to Hays. And there was their late father Michael, who died in a drowning accident on a family horseback riding outing when his girls were 11 and 9 years old.

Tied for fourth after the long-go on Saturday and making the top 10 finals list among 70-some goat tiers already was exciting for Ouellette and her family.
It got even better Sunday.

The first one to greet Ouellette after her performance was her mom, who was video taping the event and gave her oldest daughter a big hug afterward.

Lycrecia doesn’t miss very many college rodeos in which her children are competing, but this one was particularly important. It also was likely the last home rodeo for Tennille, who has one year of eligibility left but is on track to graduate in December with a degree in agricultural business and then look for a job.

“There’s more to life than rodeo,” said Lycrecia, who admitted it was a bittersweet weekend. “It’s been a great ride, and they won’t quit rodeo. They will always be involved with rodeo somehow.”

The Ouellette sisters both wound up at Fort Hays State after starting their college rodeo careers at different community colleges.

They liked the size of Fort Hays State — and the size of its rodeo team. Now, both compete in the same two events their mother did at FHSU — goat tying and breakaway roping.

“You don’t have to compete with so many kids to practice,” Tennille said as the siblings began to name the pluses of competing for the FHSU rodeo team.

“They have an indoor and outdoor facility here,” Tonnica added, “and they pay for your diesel and hotels on the road. They really take care of you.”

And, FHSU is their parents’ alma mater.

“There were lots of things that pulled us here,” said Tennille, who lives with her older sister in a country home just outside Hays.

Michael Ouellette, a farmboy from Concordia, and Lycrecia Hill, a cowgirl from the Topeka area, met while both were working for the Fort Hays State University dairy back in the mid-1980s.

They married in 1987, started a family, moved to Colorado and wound up in a country home near Colorado Springs with room for their horses.

Michael hadn’t grown up around rodeos. Lycrecia, daughter of professional cowboy Larry Hill, was born into a rodeo family.

“I taught him about rodeo,” Lycrecia said. “I gave him that bad habit.”

Their children all started riding horses from the time they could sit up on one, and the Ouellette sisters riding together, one behind the other, became a familiar sight.
Their family worked together and played together until that one fateful day in 2004 that changed their lives forever.

Lycrecia, faced with raising three young children on her own after her husband’s death, said she was able to cope and survive because of the support she received from their rodeo family.

“People asked me if we were leaving (Colorado) after that,” Lycrecia said. “My rodeo family is what kept me here. My husband is buried within 3 miles of here. I couldn’t leave.”

Nor could she take her children away from rodeo.

“Staying here, they were able to still be involved in rodeo, which was really important to all of us,” said Lycrecia, an elementary school teacher in Ellicott, a small town about 25 miles east of Colorado Springs.

And, Tonnica said, there’s still a slim chance she might decide to rodeo one more year in college.

“We make this about their education,” Rumford said of his students. “Rodeo is not the No 1 priority, or even No. 2. Their education is first, and they have jobs and family to think about, too.”

“So whichever way she decides to go is fine with us,” he added.

Coincidentally, oldest Ouellette sibling Tyrell — four years older than Tonnica — also competed at the Fort Hays State Rodeo, as a member of the team from Oklahoma’s Panhandle State University. The Ouellette sisters and the rest of the FHSU team will close out their 2014-15 season this weekend at the Panhandle State Rodeo.

Lycrecia is confident all three of her children are the better for having participated in rodeo.

“The relationships you build are second to none,” she said. “We live the cowboy lifestyle. We’re country people. Cowboy’s in our blood,” Tonnica agreed.

“I look at rodeo as kind of a stepping stone,” she said. “The work ethic and perseverance you learn, those cowboy values you can carry with you throughout your life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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