By GRISELDA D. RAMIREZ
With tears streaming down her face, 20-year-old Kendra Brennan mixed joy and surprise at winning the 2011 Miss California Rodeo Salinas.
Brennan was joyful that she will represent a century-old tradition during the next year, but humble in that she won the crown against what she described as a very talented group of competitors.
"It was such a great group of girls," Brennan said, shortly after being crowned Thursday night. "Everyone was great. We all had to stay on top of our game."
Leah Dawn Herron as the first runner up followed by Alyssa Abercrombie.
Before this year's Miss Rodeo was announced, the five contestants along with Brittany Voss, last year's Miss California Rodeo Salinas, were part of the Grand Entry — the opening parade of horses that promenade across the track at the Salinas Sports Complex.
The opening parade included the Monterey Defense Language Institute Color Guard, the pageant of flags, Rodeo sponsors, the Herencia Mexicana charro association and California Rodeo Salinas President Craig Andres.
U.S. flag holders on horses dashed across the arena right before Corey Ross sang thenational anthem. People in the partially filled stands craned their necks as doves were released into the sky during the ending of the national anthem.
The newly crowned Miss California Rodeo Salinas wore a pink, long-sleeved blouse, white sash, white Wrangler jeans, cowgirl hat and boots. Her huge, gleaming earrings were a reflection of her smile.
"Everyone looks up to the Rodeo," said Brennan after the gold-and-silver tiara was placed atop her hat. "I can't believe I made it. But I'm here and I will represent one of the best Rodeos. It's an honor. This means so much."
As Miss California Rodeo, Brennan will be the Salinas ambassador of a 101 year-old Rodeo tradition.
"The contest is a tradition that began in 1926 when a young woman was crowned to represent the Rodeo," said Laurie La Velle, Miss California Rodeo Salinas chairwoman.
In addition to a gold-and-silver tiara, Brennan received a $2,500 scholarship and a two-horse trailer with the logo of next year's Rodeo.
The drama of the contest built during the past two days as each participant worked toward impressing judges in four scored categories: horsemanship, personality and appearance and scholarship.
"My best performance was in horsemanship," Brennan said. "I've grown up riding horses and was able to run my horse and the draw horse as well."
The horsemanship contest judged rail work, horsemanship pattern on the contestants' horses and draw horses — random horses assigned to each contestant — dismounting and mounting, and a presentation run.
Sherri Brennan hugged her daughter who shed tears of joy.
"I'm ecstatic," Sherri Brennan said. "I'm so proud of her. Her dad is so proud of her. He's on the phone with me and wishes he could have been here. He's at the National Finals for high school rodeo with my 16-year-old son Nolan in Wyoming."
Brennan was not the only one in tears. Her good friend from Sonora, Melissa Moore, shed a few herself.
"I'm absolutely thrilled that Kendra won," Moore said. "She studies hard and she rides hard. We're all so proud of her."
This morning Brennan will attend an awards brunch where individual category awards will be presented. And for the next year she will be the new representative of a tradition, an American heritage that attracts thousands.
There was little doubt that an impressive crowd turned out to watch Brennan's crowning and the official beginning of the Rodeo.
"Last year was the Rodeo's anniversary celebration so we thought more people were willing to make the trip. We decided to make the 2009 Rodeo as our benchmark for attendance," said marketing manager Mandy Linquist.
Organizers were surprised that presale tickets the morning of the opening show this year surpassed the amount of presale tickets sold in 2009 on the same morning. Presale ticket sales the morning of the opening show this year were down by about 600 tickets from 2010's 100th anniversary year.
"We're optimistic that we will at least be even in attendance this year as compared to last year or better," Linquist said.
If Wednesday's Professional Bull Riding attendance was an indicator of things to come, organizers should be pleased. It was up 17.7 percent this year as compared to last year — 7,972 in 2011, compared with 6,775 in 2010.
With the Rodeo just getting underway Thursday, there is more than enough optimism floating around the Rodeo grounds.
"I'm excited about this weekend," Brennan said. "I'll be representing Salinas and will contribute to keeping the Rodeo tradition and heritage alive."