LACOOCHEE — In this rural Pasco County community, Lara Dewees stood out.
A rodeo queen and national barrel racing champion, an accomplished singer and beloved schoolteacher, Dewees was somewhat of a celebrity in the town of fewer than 2,000 people.
So her death after a Feb. 20 fall while participating in a rodeo in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was all the more shocking.
A leap-year baby, Dewees would have turned 28 years old on Monday. She died from her injuries in a Hattiesburg hospital a few days before her birthday, leaving her lifelong friends and close-knit family devastated.
“This was a real tragedy,” said Don Surrency, who attends First Baptist Church of Lacoochee with Dewees’ family and watched her grow up. “Everybody here knew her. We’re just all broken up.”
A third-generation rodeo competitor, Dewees was riding horses before she could walk, said her grandmother, Jeanette Sasser.
“She got her first horse when she was 3,” said Sasser. “She grew up in the saddle and she just loved the rodeo.”
She had first-rate mentors.
Her uncle, Spunk Sasser, 50, is the second-most-decorated cowboy in the Southeastern Rodeo Circuit. Her father, Steve Dewees, was a rodeo calf roper. And her mother, Lisa Belcher, was a barrel racer.
So it didn’t surprise anyone when Dewees followed suit, competing in Southern Junior Rodeo Association events and serving as rodeo queen in the eighth grade. She also wore the sash of Miss Pasco County Fair and Miss Florida Rodeo.
“She was just a tiny thing and always so feminine,” Sasser said. “But when she got on her horse to compete, she was a different person.”
Even while competing in rodeos throughout the South, she was an A student in high school, graduating ninth in her class from Pasco County High School in 2006.
“She loved school,” said Sasser. “I think she would have been a professional student if she could have.”
After graduation, Dewees attended Saint Leo University for two years, switched to Texas A&M University for six months and completed her teaching degree at McNeese State University in St. Charles, Louisiana, before returning to Lacoochee to begin teaching for the Hernando County School District.
She taught history at Webster Middle School and later high school students enrolled in Hernando County’s online school.
“She was an only child and was probably a bit spoiled,” Sasser said. “She loved being near me and her mama. We were a threesome. We went everywhere together.”
Despite her travels competing in rodeos, Sasser said Dewees felt most comfortable in Lacoochee, living with her family and attending First Baptist Church of Lacoochee whenever she was home.
After she won her 10th national championship, a friend advised her to say she was from Dade City because it sounded more prestigious than Lacoochee. (“We’re not country bumpkins but we’re next in line,” Sasser said.)
But Dewees would not deny her roots.
“She was raised in Lacoochee and was proud of her community,” Sasser said. “I told her it didn’t matter where she was from. You can be from Timbuktu. It’s not where you’re from; it’s where you’re going.”
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“We watched her grow up at church,” Surrency said. “She started singing at church when she was a little kid and continued singing whenever she could. She had a beautiful voice.”
“When she was little, they’d drag a coffee table to the front of the church and stand her up on it to sing,” Sasser said.
She was often called on to sing the national anthem at rodeos.
“One year we were in Illinois for the National High School Rodeo Association,” Sasser said. “She was asked to sing the National Anthem but there were competitors from Canada and Australia, too. So she learned their national anthems and sang them as well.”
Belcher and Sasser later accompanied her to New Orleans to try out for the television show “America’s Got Talent.”
“She wasn’t picked but she wanted to try again,” Sasser said. “She was always singing. Just recently, she asked me what song I wanted her to sing at my funeral. I told her ‘In the Garden.’ She said she would sing that for me and sing ‘The Old Violin’ for Papa.”
Childhood friend and fellow barrel racer Kailyn Braddock of Lakeland said the multitalented Dewees pushed herself to be her best — inside and outside the arena.
“No one could beat her,” Braddock said. “She gave all that she had and encouraged others to do the same. I owe so much of my knowledge of rodeo to Lara.”
Outside the arena, Braddock said Dewees was fun-loving.
“She talked a lot, was super silly and always had a smile on her face,” Braddock said. “We laughed and joked a lot. She never truly knew how amazing she was.”
While visiting friends in Gainesville, Dewees met the love of her life, saddle bronc rider Cory Moesching, Sasser said. Dewees subsequently became pregnant with her now-18-month-old son, Layton. The couple were planning to marry and live in a small house they were renovating in Lacoochee.
“But they never got the chance,” Sasser said.
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On Feb. 20, Dewees was competing with her newest horse, Genny, when she dropped the reins and they flew over the animal’s head. Just as she trained to do, Genny, continued circling the barrels and, when she finished, she headed toward the arena’s exit gate.
The gate should have been closed to prevent the horse, which had been shod with shoes specifically intended for running on dirt, from accessing the asphalt driveway, Sasser said.
Genny slipped on the asphalt and Dewees, without the reins to keep her on the horse, flew off, landing on her face.
It was one of the few competitions Sasser and Belcher did not attend. Instead, Dewees traveled to Hattiesburg with Braddock who watched in horror as her friend flew off the horse. Braddock was the first person at her friend’s side.
By the time Sasser and Belcher arrived in Hattiesburg, Dewees was recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain.
Sasser said Dewees bore little resemblance to the beautiful young woman she knew.
“Her facial bones were broken, even her eye socket was broken,” Sasser said. “And they had to shave off her beautiful hair.”
Genny received cuts on her legs that required stitches.
Moesching and Belcher remained by her side for three days. Moesching even suggested they marry in the hospital. But Dewees’ condition seemed to be improving.
“She took a turn for the worse on Thursday, Feb. 25,” Sasser said. “The doctors are thinking it was another blood clot.”
Before she died, Dewees was trying to retain her 2015 title as the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Southeastern Circuit Divisional Tour Finals Reserve Champion.
“She rode into glory,” Sasser said. “Lara was our life. I don’t know how we’re going to go on without her.”
Moesching plans to move to Lacoochee so he can raise his son near the boy’s grandparents and great-grandparents.
“He’s all boy and loves riding horses just like his mama,” Sasser said.
Visitation will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. today at First Baptist Church of Lacoochee.
A funeral service will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Spunk Sasser Rodeo Arena, 21454 Pinkston Road.
More than 500 well-wishers are expected to attend. Her barrel-racing friends will follow behind the casket on their horses. Everyone attending is asked to wear purple in Dewees’ honor.
A Go Fund Me account has been set up to offset Dewees’ medical expenses at www.gofundme.com/laradewees.
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