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June 11, 2014 — Stranger things have happened at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR), but none have compared to the early 1990s when the University of Wyoming’s Jimmie Jo Martin single-handedly led the Cowgirls to the national championship, winning the goat tying and all-around titles.
Forward to 2011, when UW’s only three qualifiers came just 100 points short of taking the men’s national title, settling for third place. With that in mind, UW Coach George Howard hopes this year’s short-handed men’s squad can do some major damage when the CNFR begins Sunday, June 15, at the Casper Events Center.
“We have five chances to score points, but things have to go our way. You never know what will happen in the finals,” Howard says.
The first round of saddle bronc, bareback and bull riding, along with women’s breakaway roping, is Sunday during two matinee performances at 1 and 4 p.m. All remaining men’s and women’s event competitors see their first arena action bright and early Monday, June 16, at 7 a.m. with the first of two slack rounds.
The first of five consecutive nightly performances begins Tuesday, June 17, at 7 p.m., with the championship go round scheduled for Saturday, June 21. The top 12 competitors in each event, who competed during three rounds of competition throughout the week, gain short go bids.
Coming off a fourth-place finish in the Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR), the UW men didn’t qualify a full team for the finals. Just the top two clubs in the region -- Gillette College and the host Casper College clubs -- qualified their entire six-man rosters.
That left the door open for UW to gain two additional at-large bids. If the UW men are to challenge, most of their points will have to come in timed events.
“All our guys are roping as good as anybody out there,” Howard says. “All they have to do is turn that steer and let the heeler catch the steer and stop the clock. We have three chances to score some points in this event.”
Earlier, veterans Clayton Van Aken and Wyatt Clark qualified for the CNFR based on their regular-season performances. Both finished among the top three in their respective events and received automatic finals berths.
With Gillette College and Casper College compiling their six-man rosters, it left the door open for the region’s next qualifiers to fill the top three spots in some events. That enabled UW team ropers Brit Ellerman and Kade Merritt to move up and compete in collegiate rodeo’s biggest stage.
Van Aken is making his fourth straight CNFR appearance and will compete in two events. The Descanso, Calif., senior and team roping partner Kyon Kreutzer of Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo., were the CRMR runners-up. Van Aken also will compete in tie down roping at the CNFR after placing third overall in the region. He’s placed in both events before at the CNFR.
Clark, a Wellfleet, Neb., senior, was the region’s top bareback rider for much of the season, but was overtaken during the final regular season event. He got banged up during a rodeo last weekend, but Howard says Clark should be ready to go this weekend.
“He’s been consistent for us all year,” Howard says.
Both Ellerman, from Fort Lupton, Colo., and Merritt, from Eaton, Colo., were among the top five regional team ropers, but will have new partners from Gillette College when they compete at the CNFR. Ellerman will team with Seth Andersen and Merritt with Jade Schmidt.
All four UW qualifiers are veterans of the CNFR, and Howard hopes that experience pays off.
“Three years ago, we had just three people qualified and ended up third,” he says. “We need to have consistency to place in each round to make the finals.”
No UW Cowgirls qualified for the CNFR. The club finished eighth in regional team standings, and no individual placed among the top three in the regional events.