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May 5, 2014 — No matter who Clayton Van Aken has had as a team roping partner, the results have always been the same: another trip to the College Nationals Finals Rodeo (CNFR).
The University of Wyoming senior from Descanso, Calif., capped off a brilliant career as UW’s all-time leading men’s scorer when he and partner Kyon Kreutzer of Northeastern Junior College (NJC) in Sterling, Colo., captured the team roping title Sunday afternoon in the Laramie River Rendezvous Rodeo. That ensures a fourth straight CNFR appearance for Van Aken.
The action in the Cliff and Martha Hansen Livestock Teaching Arena marked the final rodeo of the Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR) season.
Even though the UW men knew they could not challenge for one of the top two automatic invitations for the CNFR entering the final weekend competition, it was the individual bids that were still to be determined for the Pokes.
Both the Gillette College and Casper College men’s teams will represent the CRMR in the national finals next month at the Casper Events Center, sending full six-man teams.
Eastern Wyoming College (EWC) won the Laramie River Rendezvous Rodeo team title with 625 points, while Casper College placed second with 520 points and Gillette College had 510. The host Cowboys split fourth with NJC. Each team scored 440 points.
The Pronghorns won the overall regional title with 4,720 points to edge the T-Birds, who had 4,678.33 points. UW’s bid to finish third in the CRMR fell just 45 points short of Sheridan College. The Generals finished the 10-rodeo fall and spring schedules with 3,650 points, and the Pokes had 3,615 total points.
Going into Sunday’s short go in the team roping competition, Van Aken and Kreutzer were only sitting fifth overall after posting nine seconds in the preliminary round. But they came out smoking in the championship round when Van Aken got his rope around the steer’s horns and Kreutzer followed with a clean capture of both hind legs, stopping the clock in the round’s best time of 8.1 seconds.
The four other roping teams with better times than Van Aken and Kreutzer from the first round all had a tough short go round, with two failing to mark, while the other two were long in 14 and 17 seconds.
It was the first time in four home rodeos that Van Aken won the team roping title.
“I finally got one here. It’s been kind of rough lately the past four years,” a smiling Van Aken said after the championship round.
All spring semester, he and Kreutzer were steady in team roping to finish 115 points behind the regional winners, Levi O’Keefe and Derek Weinreis from EWC.
Van Aken is shooting for bigger things when he and Kreutzer head to the CNFR. The UW senior’s best finish in collegiate rodeo’s biggest stage was third place as a sophomore, when he and UW partner Kade Merritt of Eaton, Colo., teamed up.
Van Aken always has been a heeler, but switched as the lead man to header for the current season. And for all four years, he’s always had a different partner -- the longest one was for a year and a half.
“Really, it’s not that hard having a new one each year. You just go out there and practice,” he says. “As long as you go out and do your job, and your heeler does his, it’s all good. It’s just a matter of trusting your partner.”
Van Aken was busy last weekend competing in another roping event, tie down. He finished fourth in the average with two steady times of 15 and 14.9 seconds. For his work, the UW senior placed third overall in the regional standings and will compete in both events at the CNFR. He hasn’t done that since his freshman season.
“I’ve had a little trouble in calf roping and have had to use four different horses throughout the year,” he said, before finally settling for the one that has brought him decent results down the stretch.
He has placed third and sixth in two previous national finals in tie down.
Three of Van Aken’s teammates also scored points during the Laramie River Rendezvous Rodeo’s short go.
Wellfleet, Neb., senior Wyatt Clark lost his bid for a regional bareback riding championship when he managed a fourth place in Sunday’s average. Second-place Zach Phillips of Casper College leap-frogged Clark in the final standings when Phillips won both the short go and the average to claim the overall regional title by just 15 points over Clark.
Brit Ellerman, a Fort Lupton, Colo., senior, and partner Trey Yates of EWC were fourth in the team roping average after posting the opening round’s top time. Ellerman will learn his fate if he receives a CNFR bid this week.
And senior Thomas Smith of Farson reached steer wresting’s short go after recording the opening round’s fourth best time. It wasn’t enough to get him into the CNFR.
Two other UW Cowboys, brothers Kade and Reed Merritt, also may receive CNFR bids once Gillette College and Casper College settle on their six-man teams. The Merritts may qualify if the two top teams do not add team ropers to their rosters.
Chadron State College (CSC) won the women’s side of the Laramie River Rendezvous Rodeo with 370 points -- 30 better than runner-up Gillette College. But it wasn’t enough for the Eagles in the overall regional standings. The Pronghorns matched the men’s team title with 3,155 points, while CSC ended up with 3,145.33 points for the year.
The UW Cowgirls scored 100 points in the final home rodeo and placed 10th overall in the region with 713 points.
Devin Nichols of Kinnear scored all the Cowgirls’ points when she won the opening round of breakaway roping. However, she was hit with a 10-second penalty in the short go for breaking the barrier, and had to settle for a 12.2-second time. She finished fifth in the average.
No UW Cowgirl qualified for the CNFR this season.
Clayton Van Aken