Junior rodeo finals returns to Sweetwater

For the first time since 2006, the American Junior Rodeo Association will hold its National Finals Rodeo at the Nolan County Coliseum.The five-day affair — which kicks off Tuesday and continues through Saturday — will feature young buckaroos in several age brackets competing for national championship titles in traditional rodeo events ranging from team roping to barrel racing. To get this far, participants had to qualify at four AJRA-sanctioned rodeos throughout the year, which were held in various West Texas cities.With the AJRA's roots stretching back to 1952, the organization is considered by many in the rodeo world to be the premiere training ground for young adults to learn the ropes before entering the professional realm."The (AJRA) legacy is bar none," said Mary McMullan, who is serving in her third year as AJRA secretary manager. "I truly believe we have some of the most elite athletes competing in rodeo today. I think you'll see some of their names in lights in the years to come."In addition to bragging rights, some elite spoils of victory are up for grabs, too.McMullan estimates that more than $100K will be awarded in cash and prizes to the 118 entrants set to perform.Vendors will ply their wares within the coliseum during the week, evangelical singer Crystal Lyons will open the rodeo Thursday evening with her own brand of horseback preaching, while the kids involved with the rodeo can play in a three-on-three basketball tournament, attend an ice cream social with their families and enjoy hot dogs at a poolside party."We encourage the community to come out and support the kids," McMullan added. "It's wholesome, family entertainment. And it links us back to our American heritage — the cowboy days when they would find ways to compete and have some fun after the work was done for the day."Also striving to ensure the event is a crowd pleaser is Nolan County Coliseum general manager Jeff Howard, who hopes a sizable crowd joins in the week's fun."We'll have some of the best young cowboys and cowgirls from Texas and New Mexico," Howard said. "The (AJRA) has a history of producing some of the great rodeo stars of today and in the past."All of the NFR events are free of charge. The Nolan County Coliseum is climate controlled and all ages are welcome to attend.Last-minute sponsorship opportunities are available, as well as vendor booth space. For more details, contact McMullan at (325) 277-5824.