COOLIDGE — Antonio Ortega, Emily Schmitt, Ana Rivera and her sister Abigail are a tight-knit group of friends.
“When we fight, I always try to make it up because I don’t like it when we fight,” Ana Rivera says. Her comment instantly elicits giggles, laughter and a series of humorous claims to the contrary from the other members of the group.
Like all friends, this group knows how to make each other laugh, support each other and hold one another accountable.
But there is one little detail that makes this band of friends exceptionally unique. Collectively, and individually, they are the champions in the state for this year’s Arizona Association FFA Livestock Evaluation Career Development Event, which was held Feb. 28-29 during the association’s Spring Convention at the University of Arizona.
According to Coolidge High School FFA Advisor Jadee Rohner, the win makes the team the first from the program to qualify to compete at the National FFA Convention in more than 25 years. The Convention is currently scheduled for Oct. 27-31.
Beyond being selected as the top team for livestock evaluation within Arizona, each member also managed to earn a spot as one of the top 10 competitors within the state individually. At the spring conference, Ana Rivera earned the title of first high individual, while Schmitt and Abigail ranked second and third high individual, respectively. Ortega also ranked among the top 10, earning a spot as the sixth high individual.
“The whole team was (in) the top six; you don’t see that very often,” Abigail said. “Usually only one or two people will make it into the top 10.”
The awards were won with hard work by the livestock team, which spent countless hours practicing.
“As a team, we’re together maybe two to three times a week,” Abigail said. In addition, all four students typically spend every other weekend together either judging livestock for competitions or seeking out other opportunities to perfect their craft.
While they are all strong when it comes to evaluating, each member of the team has a specific area in which they excel, based primarily off of the animals they typically show. Schmitt has a firm understanding of the ideal traits to look for in cattle; Ana and Abigail are well versed when it comes to lambs; and Ortega knows plenty about lambs, goats and pigs.
Judging livestock, Schmitt noted, also has helped the group to better understand what they are looking for when it comes to selecting their own livestock.
“Since we all raise livestock, when we have to go pick out our animals, it’s a good thing for us because we can use what we know for livestock judging to go pick out some of the best animals for show,” she said.
The mission to earn the title as the best in the state got its start when group placed third in the 2019 Arizona Association FFA Spring Conference. The experience, Ortega said, made them eager to return this year.
To give themselves the best chance, all four students decided to take their training to the next level by attending a livestock judging camp at Oklahoma State University over the summer. Beyond the camp, they also began competing in livestock judging competitions around the state.
“They competed, if not every month, every other month,” Rohner said.
All of that effort paid off when they attended this year’s Spring Conference. The conference featured 21 career and development events, ranging from job interviewing and forestry to meat and livestock evaluation.
Within the livestock CDE, students were asked to judge nine livestock classes and give four sets of oral reasonings. Each class featured four animals, and students were asked to select the animal they considered the most ideal based on factors such as muscling, structure and balance.
For FFA teams, however, oral reasons are much more complex than casually explaining their thought process behind their selections.
Instead, members are asked to give a comprehensive defense of their decisions, requiring students to have extensive knowledge about what makes certain livestock ideal as well as strong grasp of their terminology used to describe them. In addition, the reasonings must be phrased following specific guidelines.
Though events like livestock evaluation revolve around students’ understanding of the desirable traits and terminology related to livestock, they also enable students to cultivate critical skills that will serve them down line in other areas, such as effective communication.
But the process does not stop there. After they have constructed their reasonings, students must then memorize them prior to presenting if they want a shot at earning the full amount of points during the event.
“When I worked with previous livestock teams we would just be like ‘OK, memorize this set for pigs and when you have pigs this is the set you give,’” Rohner said. “But when you get to be a more seasoned team, it has to be a descriptor off of the actual animals that you are looking at. So it can’t be something that you’ve already done, it’s something that you have to think of on the fly.”
Typically students are given about 15 minutes in between sets to write and memorize their reasonings, Ana Rivera said. But during this particular career development event, participants were asked to give their sets back to back without the luxury of 15 minutes in between.
Rivera noted that the CDE was also particularly challenging because it featured some classes of animals that the Coolidge FFA group are familiar with, but typically don’t judge.
“We do doe classes — they’re the goats — but we don’t give reasonings on them. This year we had to give reasonings on them,” she said. “And then we had the dorper lambs, and they’re a breed of sheep, but they’re not the sheep we (typically) show.”
Despite it all, the group still managed to prevail.
The win means that the team will now have the chance to compete against 50 other teams from across the United States at the national convention in October in Indianapolis.
Leading up to the convention, the livestock team will continue to practice any chance they get. The process will include continuing to participate in at statewide competitions ahead of the convention and volunteering to judge livestock for different events.
“I think it’s been so long since Coolidge had a national qualifying team, and it doesn’t look real,” Rohner said. “I think it makes it attainable for other kids. And I think that’s when you’ll start to see a lot of teams that will get a lot more state recognition, and potentially national recognition because they can see what it takes to get there, and (that’s) just hard work.”
The group is aiming high, with the hopes of winning the title as the top livestock evaluation team in the country. If not first, Ortega said, he is hoping to at least place in the top 10. But no matter what happens, each team member will walk away having gained so much.
“They’ve very much created this bond of unbreakable friendship (based on) experiences that they’ve had,” Rohner said.