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September 9, 2022

The start was fast and the finish furious.

High fuel prices couldn’t slow down the Montana Health Co-Op Tour for the Northern Rodeo Association and Northern Women’s Rodeo Association.

After competing in 31 rodeos in every corner and across the Big Sky State, it has come down to this:

The top 10 in each event qualify for the NRA/NWRA Finals, October 27-29 at Majestic Valley Arena in Kalispell.

If the regular season is any indication, the Finals will be must-watch action to determine the 2022 year-end champions.

In six of the nine individual events, all 10 qualifiers are mathematically in contention for titles.

The all-around cowboy and all-around cowgirl buckles – a showcase to versatility – will also be decided on the last day of the season.

Ben Ayre stands on the cusp of NRA history. The Glendive cowboy has an opportunity to win four year-end gold buckles: steer wrestling, team roping heading, tie-down roping and all-around cowboy.

There are those – men and women – who have won a Triple Crown. But never in the long, storied history of the NRA has a competitor won four championship saddles in a single year.

And there are those who are just starting to write their own history.

Rookies Trevor Kay (bareback), Garrett Cunningham (saddle bronc) and Cash Trexler (tie-down roping) enter the pressure-packed Finals leading their events.

Cunningham and Kay were the two most dominant roughstock riders of 2022. Cunningham, of Broadus, won an NRA-best 12 titles, including the finale in Helmville.

Kay, of Chester, was equally impressive, topping the leaderboard 11 times including the final two rodeos of the regular season.

By contrast, 25 different pairs won the team roping at Mountain Health Co-Op Tour events, while there were 20 different winners in breakaway roping.

The list of returning champions is long, headed by Celie Salmond who returns to defend both her breakaway roping and her all-around cowgirl titles.

She is joined by Andrew Evjene (saddle bronc), Kobe Whitford (bull riding), Coltin Rauch (tie-down roping), Ian Austiguy and Sam Levine (team roping) and Abby Knight (barrel racing) who are chasing repeat success.

And every event is loaded with talented cowboys and cowgirls, ready to move to the front of the line should the leaders stumble.

Labor Day weekend, the final weekend of the regular season, had some seismic movement in the standings with competitors chasing a spot in the top 10 at Hamilton and Helmville.

Hamilton is traditionally a game-changer and this summer was no different. The rodeo in the Bitterroot Valley handed out nine checks of $1,000 or more.

Dillon Hahnkamp went from the outside looking in to joining the party during his holiday weekend. The Melrose roper won the tie-down roping in Hamilton for $1,094, to jump from 15th to eighth in the final regular season standings.

Former all-around and tie-down roping champion Dustin Bird of Cut Bank had a different team roping partner, but same result. Bird and Justin Viles won the team roping, which lifted Bird to the lead in the team roping heading standings. Bird roped most of the summer with Ike Folsom of Dillon.

Belgrade cowgirl Tracey Bolich emerged from a crowded field to win the breakaway roping at Hamilton. The $1,386 check lifted her from seventh to third in the standings. Only eight-tenths of a second separated the top 10 finishers.

Ayre used a second-place finish in steer wrestling at Helmville to move from 11th to eighth and earn a chance at history.

Trexler won the tie-down roping in 8.7 seconds and was third in the team roping with Gregg Cassidy to climb into the all-around race. The teenager from Corvallis has the three-fastest tie-down roping times this year.

There are reigning champions and former champions among this year’s Finals qualifiers.

Who will be the future champions? We’ll find out across three days in October.

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