POCATELLO — Applause rained down on Cooper Cooke, who pushed himself up off the bleachers and headed toward Pocatello Downs’ centerstage to receive the award that he had worked — and injured himself — so hard for. A three-time all-around state rodeo champion after his performance Saturday, Cooke limped as he approached the saddle with “IHSRA Champion” etched across the side. Cloudless skies freed the sun to illuminate the spectacle.

The Teton senior was used to this. It’s his third one, after all. What he was struggling to adjust to was the back injury that forced his limp.

Small price to pay.

“It feels pretty good. That’s an opportunity a lot of kids don’t get,” Cooke said, sitting at a table in the bowels of Pocatello Downs. “I’m very thankful that my dad got me into doing a lot of events, because once I found that all-around was the top thing, that’s what I wanted to go for. I’m like, ‘I’m going to do that.’”

This time, Cooke earned the opportunity by placing first in bull riding and second in both bareback riding and saddle bronc riding at the state rodeo finals, which concluded with Saturday’s short-go, featuring top finishers from the first three go-rounds.

Here is where rodeo’s uniqueness kicks in. The season isn’t over for Cooke. Instead, he’s secured a spot in the National High School Finals Rodeo, which are set for July 18-24 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a short 941-mile jaunt from Pocatello. It will be Cooke’s third straight trip.

There, his goal is likely the same of all the competitors: Win the all-around title. The key, though, will be consistency.

“I’m a person that’s like, ‘Whatever happens happens,’” Cooke said. “I don’t like to overthink on anything. I’ve high school rodeo’d for four years. I’ve done all of it. Honestly, at this point, I’m just ready to hit the road and go pro rodeo.”

The next step: college. In August, Cooke will head south to Snyder, Texas, the home of Western Texas College, where he has earned a full-ride — no pun intended — scholarship. He’s interested in academics, but he isn’t shy about it. He wants to hone his riding skills. From there, Cooke will likely see more chances to go pro.

For now, it bears explaining how Cooke arrived at such an opportunity in the first place.

He’s been competing in rodeo since sixth grade, the first year the National High School Rodeo Association introduced bareback riding and saddle bronc riding into the junior high division. One day, Cooke’s father, Casey, threw him on a steer. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Cooper said.

The steer dragged him around. It was the kind of start you’d expect from a sixth grader in bull riding.

“I actually hated that event,” Cooke said with a laugh. “I hated it.”

He had no intentions of entering the next rodeo, so Casey did the honors. Good thing he did. Cooper won.

“Right after that, I was hooked,” Cooper said. “I was like, ‘This is something I want to make a career out of.’”

Considering his trajectory, Cooke is well on his way.

Part of the equation involves the way he’s discarded other activities, like wrestling. He competed until his sophomore year. As a freshman, he finished second at state in his weight class. The next season, he returned to state.

“And then I quit,” Cooke said. “Just because I wanted to pursue rodeo and make a living out of it.”

To Cooke, rodeo is special in several respects. The one he likes most has to do with the people. He was first exposed to rodeo fanatics at age 4, when his parents introduced him to the orbit. “Ever since then, that’s just been my thing,” Cooke said. “I haven’t found anything that can top rodeo for me.”

Cooke’s high school chapter may be closing, but he’s far from done with rodeo. A pro career, he hopes, looms. What will stay the same, in high school or Texas or wherever he goes as a professional, are the people.

“I truly don’t think you’ll find a better environment of people outside of rodeo,” Cooke said. “You meet so many people all the time, and it’s the best thing in the world. Everyone’s there. We all love the same thing. It’s awesome.”

Greg Woods is a sports reporter at the Post Register. Reach him 208-542-6772 and follow him on Twitter at GregWWoods.

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