There were five remaining, cloven from a field of 28, yet one of the lovely cowgirls stood tall above the rest.
But before the 56th Miss Rodeo America was crowned Saturday afternoon at The Orleans Arena, there was the procedural matter of announcing all of the pageant’s category winners. This was to add suspense to the final announcement of all the runners-up leading to the 2011 titlist, but revealing who won those awards only made the final judgment all the more obvious.
Appearance: McKenzie Haley, Miss Rodeo South Dakota.
Personality: McKenzie Haley, Miss Rodeo South Dakota.
Photogenic: McKenzie Haley, Miss Rodeo South Dakota.
Speech: McKenzie Haley, Miss Rodeo South Dakota.
Of the eight categories in which the Miss Rodeo America contestants are judged, the young woman with the surname first name won half. It was a landslide, and even the uninitiated pageant observer had to think that if pageant officials did not give the prize to McKenzie Haley, Miss Rodeo South Dakota, the whole operation should be turned over to the BCS.
So it was announced that Haley is to wear the Miss Rodeo America white Bailey cowboy hat and the pageant title that former Miss Rodeo Mississippi Kelli Jackson carried since December 2009. The first runner-up was Miss Rodeo California Markie Battaglia, who won the horsemanship competition. Miss Rodeo Nevada, Lauren Neil of Reno, finished in the Top 10.
Haley was the fourth Miss Rodeo America titlist to hail from South Dakota, so it was not that rare a feat in a contest that dates to 1955. She won more than $20,000 in scholarship money and would have been given an additional $2,500 scholarship prize if she decides to enroll at UNLV.
The UNLV offer is a prize package offered by Las Vegas Events, though Haley says she’s planning to continue her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at Black Hills State University in Click Colome, a town of 340 in the south-central region of the state.
Haley plans to earn a master’s degree in elementary education, to help children in need receive proper schooling.
“I just love children,” she said after the pageant, still a little overcome after winning the title.
Haley also said her name is a recurring source of confusion. She has often found herself listed as “Haley McKenzie.” She agreed that Miss Rodeo America is closest in kinship to Miss America in the beauty pageant culture, though the two organizations are not formally linked.
“It’s the scholarships,” she said. “Both pageants give young women a chance to further their education."
Haley also said she loves Las Vegas -- and why not, with $20K in scholarship money in her Vegas haul -- but is looking forward to visiting the city at some other point other than early December. “Each time I’ve been here, it’s for the NFR. I get to see the city turn into a rodeo town, but I’d like to see it during some other time, too.”
As Haley spoke, officials smiled broadly, as if knowing they picked the ideal successor to Jackson. Remarkably, of the hundreds of individuals who put on the show, only one is paid.
Otherwise, it’s an entirely volunteer effort -- or beyond volunteer when you consider that the volunteers pay their own way to the show. A host of corporate sponsors helps fund the show and finance the scholarship fund, which this year is just shy of $50,000.
It’s a solid culture, a throwback institution, and watching the new Miss Rodeo America handle her new title with beauty, grace and smarts, you had to tip your hat.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.