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UW Rodeo Teams Open Fall Season at Chadron State College

September 7, 2011

It was hard to imagine the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) without the University of Wyoming Cowboys. But it happened a year ago, when UW's full men’s team failed to qualify for college rodeo’s year-end event.

Only the top two teams gain automatic bids to the CNFR, and the Cowboys finished out of the running, losing out to surprising Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR) winner Casper College and all-of-a-sudden regional power Gillette College.

All the Cowboys could do was send a partial contingent -- three team members, all of whom qualified by placing high individually in their respective events -- to the CNFR in Casper. And did they ever pull a fast one on the entire field.

Led by the team roping pair of Kade Merritt of Eaton, Colo., and Clayton Van Aken of Descanso, Calif., and saddle bronc rider Merritt Smith of Gillette, the Cowboys came out of nowhere to place third in the final CNFR standings. Smith and Merritt and Van Aken scored enough points to place third in their respective events.

This season, with Merritt and Van Aken back and with the addition of the national high school team roping champions, the Cowboys have to be mentioned among regional favorites, perhaps even national contenders if things fall into place once again.

"We upset some apple carts last year and I'm excited about the new season," veteran UW Coach George Howard says. "They always look at us and say, ‘Where do you get these people?'"

Howard feels he has the team to challenge the competition.  And just like at the CNFR, Howard will rely heavily on his ropers to open the season.

Besides the Merritt/Van Aken roping team, the Cowboys added the national high school champion pair of Brit Ellerman of Fort Lupton, Colo., and Marcus Bannister of Brighton, Colo. Another champion team roper also is among the six-man UW team ready to go at this week's opener at Chadron State College.

Pueblo, Colo., native Tyler Schnaufer transferred to UW this fall from Lamar (Colo.) Community College, where he teamed last season with Northeastern Junior College's Shay Carroll to win the CRMR team roping title.

"I know I'm sticking my neck out this season with so many team ropers, but that's the way it is right now," Howard says. "It takes a little bit of balance to do well and you do need for things to go right for you at both ends of the arena. It's going to be an interesting year, but we'll be right there in contention."

But that doesn't mean that UW has turned into a roping school. Howard has added a roughstock competitor in Hunter Hoover from Ulysses, Kan., whom he sees as a legitimate contender in bull riding.

Tie-down roper and steer wrestler Thomas Smith of Farson and Gillette saddle bronc rider Eric Gewecke could also be in the mix. Both Merritt and Van Aken also are tie-down ropers.

If the UW men's team was a surprise at the end of the season, the UW Cowgirls were somewhat of a disappointment. Only Kaycee Nelson of Buffalo, S.D., qualified for last season's CNFR. The returning regional breakaway roping champion was just one round away from advancing to the CNFR's short go.

She will lead the four-member Cowgirls team by competing in both goat tying and team roping. Joining her will be veterans Heather Bregar of Lander and Cayla Allen of Bellevue, Colo., both of whom compete in all three women's events. Howard will go with either Tori Bonham of Laramie or Loni Dowton of Ellis, Idaho, for the final spot on the roster.

"The power this year will be at Central Wyoming College -- they have all their girls back," Howard says. The Lady Rustlers' strength will be in goat tying, while UW counters with breakaway ropers.

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