It's the biggest college rodeo around — and it's back at Cal Poly this week

Cal Poly student Tyree Cochrane practices for Cal Poly's 78th annual Poly Royal Rodeo which will be held April 13-14, 2018, at Alex G. Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo, California.
Cal Poly student Tyree Cochrane practices for Cal Poly's 78th annual Poly Royal Rodeo which will be held April 13-14, 2018, at Alex G. Spanos Stadium in San Luis Obispo, California. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Thousands of spectators from around the Central Coast and beyond will fill the seats inside Alex G. Spanos Stadium on Friday and Saturday nights as the 78th annual Poly Royal Rodeo takes center stage.

For the second consecutive year, Cal Poly's 11,000-seat football stadium will be temporarily transformed into a rodeo arena for what is believed to be the largest college rodeo in the country.

Cal Poly head coach Ben Londo — the driving force behind the rodeo's expansion — said he's cautiously optimistic organizers will be able handle any hiccups leading up to the event, having successfully navigated around a storm that poured nearly 2 inches of rain on the venue at this time last year.

"I didn’t know if we could pull it off, to tell you the truth," Londo said.

They did — despite the cancellation of Friday night's performance — and more than 10,000 spectators rewarded their efforts by providing a raucous atmosphere for college cowboys and cowgirls to show off their talents Saturday night.

In order to replicate last year's success, the university again hired Ohio-based contractor Randy Spraggins and his company, Special-T-Tracks, to convert the football stadium into a rodeo arena and back again during a 96-hour window.

Last spring, that task included laying 1,500 sheets of plywood and spreading 2,000 cubic yards of soil over the field.

Londo said Spraggins is "the best guy in the business" and one of the first people he called when planning initially began.

"Somehow, someway, that was the only weekend he had available that year — and I booked him," Londo said. "It’s been a great partnership ever since."

Cal Poly's Alex G. Spanos Stadium was converted into a rodeo arena for the 77th annual Poly Royal Rodeo, taking place April 7 and 8, 2017. It's the first time the rodeo has been hosted at the 11,000-seat arena.

The first night of competition is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Friday, and will include kid-friendly activities. Children under 10 years old will get in free. Tickets are $20 for students, $25 for general admission and $40 for chair-back seats.

Competition will continue at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, and tickets are $10 for children ages 2 to 10, $25 for students, $30 for general admission and $50 for chair-back seats. Admission is free for children 2 or younger.

Texas country music star Aaron Watson is scheduled to perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

"The community, the school, everybody's behind us this year and taking a lot of pride in our events," Londo said. "We’re excited to put on a great show and share that with everybody."

Cal Poly freshman Gracely Speth, a breakaway roper from Bozeman, Montana, watched last year's Poly Royal Rodeo from the grandstands while visiting campus with her family. She said it was "an amazing rodeo to watch" that had an atmosphere comparable to the National Finals Rodeo.

"It makes you feel like every other rodeo you can handle if you have Poly Royal under you belt," Speth said. "I'm super excited to be a part of it."

Cal Poly's women's team has separated itself as the group to beat in the West Coast region standings this spring, having built a 1,200-point lead on the next closest team. On the men's side, Cuesta College trails only West Hills College in the team standings, while the Cal Poly men are ranked fifth out of seven teams. The Cuesta College women are sixth in the most recent standings.

Meet Cal Poly Rodeo Coach Ben Londo. “You know, rodeo, it’s a lot more than just a sport," Londo says. “It’s a heritage. It’s a way of life." The 2018 Poly Royal Rodeo — the largest college rodeo in the U.S. — will be held April 13-14.

Fourth-year student Clayton Combs, a calf roper from Las Vegas whose parents are Cal Poly graduates, competed in last year's rodeo and said the massive crowd is what sticks out in his memory.

"I just remember all the people," Combs said. "This year, I don't even know what to expect. We have more sponsors helping us out this year. It's just going to be a lot better."

According to Londo, a Cal Poly graduate now in his fifth year as head coach, the Poly Royal Rodeo has always been a big event within the agricultural community. Moving it to Spanos Stadium helped tap into an audience that may not have been accessible otherwise.

"Now that we've pulled it off and shown that it can be done," Londo said, "it's a great success story and something that we'll continue to build upon."