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Sierra Holder displays her state-championship barrel racing on her horse Jolene.

Georgetown cousins Sierra Holder and Bree Roark both expect to go further in the National Junior High Finals Rodeo at the end of this month than they did as first-timers last year.

They're certainly going a lot farther to it.

The June 24-30 competition is in Huron, South Dakota, which is about 1,200 miles from the girls' Hamilton County homes. When they qualified last year they just had to go to Lebanon, Tennessee.

Each family will be hauling two horses that have to be let out of their trailers for periods of time along the way, so a drive that might take 18 hours in normal circumstances likely will take 22 to 24, according to Terri Roark, Bree's mother.

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Bree Roark, riding Cattin, displays the pole-bending ability that won her a Georgia state rodeo title.

A "nice lady" in Missouri is making her horse facility available for an overnight stay, Terri said.

"It's going to be a long drive. It definitely takes a lot more planning than last year," she added.

But there's more potential for success as well, at least according to the young competitors. Like last year, they qualified for the nationals through the Georgia junior high rodeo finals in Perry. Roark repeated last weekend as state champion in pole bending and was third in barrel racing, an event Holder won after finishing second in 2017. Holder also will compete in goat tying after finishing third in that event in Perry.

The cousins qualify through Georgia because it has a lot of rodeos relatively close to where they live, compared to Tennessee competitions.

Holder just finished the eighth grade at Sale Creek, where she plays basketball. Roark is going into eighth grade and is a soccer player at Hunter Middle. But in rodeo they're headed somewhere that will include about 1,000 participants from 43 states, five Canadian provinces, Mexico and even Australia, according to a National High School Rodeo Association release.

All get two runs in each of their events, and the top 20 after those move on to a final round, or "short go." The champions will be the girls and boys with the best three-round combinations.

Holder finished 16th in barrel racing in the nationals last year, and she was 24th with Roark 23rd in pole bending.

"Last year I was kind of nervous and scared, not really knowing what it was all about," Holder said. "My goal then was to make it to nationals, but this year my first goal was to win state, which I did, and now I hope to be at least in the top five. Now I kind of know what's coming, like the amount of people who will be there, and I can focus on what I need to do."

Like last year, she'll do the barrel racing atop Jolene. Blondie is her horse for goat tying, where she hopes to make the top 20.

"You never know, but, yeah, she could do top five," said Jason Holder, Sierra's dad, who once competed in the high school national rodeo in Wyoming. "She's been doing real good, and she's been clicking with Jolene."

Randy Roark also was a successful rodeo competitor growing up, and his daughter is focused on making it "to the short go" in both pole bending on Cattin and barrel racing on Smoke in the nationals.

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Georgetown residents and cousins Bree Roark, left, and Sierra Holder are returning to the National Junior High Finals Rodeo, which this year is in South Dakota.

"I think it's more exciting this year. I know more what I can do," Bree said.

She has been training Smoke about six months but has an established history with Cattin.

That took a jarring hit last November when the Roarks stopped to eat on the way to Perry for the Southeastern Showdown. Someone took their truck and trailer with Cattin and Bree's brother's horse inside from a Walmart parking lot in the Atlanta area, but all were found two days later at another Walmart about 30 minutes away. The horses were hungry, mildly dehydrated and sore from being confined but otherwise OK.

Bree competed that weekend on borrowed horses but naturally was distracted.

"Whenever they were gone, I didn't feel like it was really happening," she said Tuesday, "but I didn't really feel like myself when I was running other horses. I was just really happy when we found out they were OK. The whole experience was exhausting, but it was a great relief."

The girls' success has come with sacrifices for them and their families.

"I'm super proud of my daughter, of course, but both of them, because they work their tails off," Keelie Holder said. "They go to school and play sports there, and then they come home and start a whole new day. They do homework and ride and take care of their horses. And they've come a long way."

Now they're going a long way.

Contact Ron Bush at rbush @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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