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UW Men’s Rodeo Team Finishes Third at College Finals

June 20, 2011

How ‘bout them Cowboys!

With just three contestants -- three fewer than constitutes a full team -- UW upstaged Central Rocky Mountain Region rivals Casper College and Gillette College en route to a third-place finish at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR), which concluded Saturday night at the Casper Events Center.

"This is something that's really exciting for us," UW Coach George Howard says. "Nobody was paying any attention to our guys and not only did we upset Casper and Gillette but we came within 100 points of winning a national title. That's not supposed to happen when you only have three guys. It just goes to show the caliber of cowboy around here."

The Cowboys' trio of Clayton VanAken (Descanso, Calif.), Merritt Smith (Gillette) and Kade Merritt (Eaton, Colo.) totaled 655 points at the six-day competition to finish behind Sam Houston State and McNeese State, which scored 755 and 700 points, respectively.

Regional champion Casper ended up in seventh place, one spot below Gillette.

VanAken led UW's charge, earning points in team and tie-down roping to place second to McNeese State's Winn Ratliff in the men's all-around standings with 275 points. Ratliff, who competed in bareback and bull riding, finished with 290 points.

VanAken and Merritt timed 18.6 on three in team roping to place third, the highest finish of any team with a no-time. After missing in the first go, VanAken, a freshman, and Merritt, a sophomore, posted runs of 6.0, 6.6 and 6.0.

VanAken added a sixth-place finish in tie-down roping with a four-head time of 46.3 seconds.

"This isn't your normal freshman," Howard says of VanAken. "This kid is just a phenomenal roper. He just doesn't miss."

In his college rodeo farewell, Smith turned in a third-place finish in saddle bronc riding, highlighted by an 80.5-point ride to win the third go.

"That made my week right there," says Howard.

Smith scored 296 on four in a tightly-contested competition won by Texas A&M's Jacobs Crawley with 304 points.

UW's lone women's contestant, Kaycee Nelson (Buffalo, S.D.), ended up 14th in breakaway roping. She missed out on a chance to qualify for the championship round after missing her calf in the third go.

"We were talking and she said, ‘I'll be back here,' and I said, ‘I'm not doubting that at all,''" Howard says of the sophomore who won the regional breakaway title.

With the 2010-11 season in the books, Howard is preparing to hit the recruiting trail with hopes of landing roughstock talent, particularly a bareback rider, on the men's side and strengthening a young women's roster.

"We're going to come back strong next year, but we still need a bareback rider," the coach says. "I'm going to beat the bushes and find us a bareback rider."

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