ROAD TO THE FINALS
Follow the journey of the top NRA & NWRA athletes on their way to the Northern Rodeo Association Finals!
Stories by: Joe Kusek
With an event-best nine victories, J2 Bridges has already clinched his second straight year-end title and third in four years.
That’s not to say the rest of the field is staying home. There’s money to be won.
Dalton May of Buffalo has eight top-four finishes to his name, including wins at Ennis and Deer Lodge, while Darby’s George Gillespie started his summer with a win at the opener in Conrad and also won at Harlowton and Superior.
Cache Hill of Wibaux has a knack for making late surges up the standings. A year ago, he closed 2017 with wins at Hamilton and Helmville. This summer, Hill won in August at Boulder and Wibaux, to go along with an early-season win at Culbertson.
Glendive’s Tucker Zingg put himself in the top five with a huge win at Hamilton, while Brandley Peabody of Billings went a long distance for consecutive wins at Poplar and Gardiner. Peabody is the son of Larry Peabody, a former PRCA world bareback champion.
Bridges (Three Forks) and Gillespie (Superior) also had the highest-marked rides at 82 points.
Kyle Callaway won the Townsend rodeo with a time of 3.7 seconds, the fastest win in the Northern Rodeo Association for 2018.
The Billings cowboy will have to match that quickness if he wants to retain his lead atop in the standings. Callaway comes to Butte just a slim $196 ahead of Taylor Corbett of Billings. All 10 qualifiers have a mathematical chance to become the new champion.
Callaway, who is also fifth in the all-around standings after earning money in team roping, has eight top-three finishes to his credit including wins at East Helena, Townsend and Helmville. The win at Helmville put him in front of a tightly-bunched pack.
Corbett has 11 top-four finishes with wins at Gardiner and high-paying Hamilton which put him in solid title contention. He was also second at Poplar, Culbertson and Twin Bridges.
All-around contender Hank Hollenbeck of Molt had back-to-back wins at Three Forks and Shelby and added another in Twin Bridges. He trails Callaway by just $264.
Arlan Minue of Sweetgrass opened his 2018 with three straight wins to start the summer, taking Conrad, Culbertson and Poplar. He added victories at Polson, Ennis and Boulder. His six wins is an event-best. Minue was 3.8 seconds at Ennis.
Andrew Evjene has been close before. Now he’s just one or two good rides away from finally ascending the mountain. The Two Dot cowboy was second in 2015 and fourth in 2014. He walks into the Butte Civic Center, saddle in hand, with a lead of $1,268 on Cody R. Miller of Pryor.
Miller, along with defending champion Tyler Friend of Great Falls, are the only two competitors with a mathematical chance of catching Evjene.
Evjene put himself firmly in the driver’s seat with 10 top-three finishes, including wins at Ennis, Choteau, Shelby and Eureka. He was also second at Conrad, Culbertson, Wilsall, Harlowton and Scobey.
Miller stayed within striking distance with wins at Conrad, Poplar and Wilsall. He also earned a big-second place check at Hamilton in late summer. Miller won Wilsall with an 82-point ride, the second-highest marked ride of the season.
Friend won’t let his title go without a fight. He won and Harlowton, Three Forks and Twin Bridges as part of his eight top-three finishes.
And no other event boasts a former PRCA world champion in the mix. Jesse Kruse of Winston, who won the PRCA world titled in 2009, won an event-best five times this past summer. Kruse made the field bring it’s “A” game with wins at Gardiner, Big Timber, Scobey, Boulder and Hamilton. His 83-point win at Boulder is the high-mark ride of the year.
Hank Hollenbeck returns to defend his title. But the multi-event Molt cowboy – he’s also competing at the NRA Finals in steer wrestling – will have to be fast and consistent to make it back-to-back championships.
Standing in Hollenbeck’s way is Jack Graham, of Lakeview, Ore. Graham is another on a long list of MSU cowboys who have honed their skills in the NRA.
Graham, who also leads the all-around cowboy standings over Hollenbeck, won four times this summer one of the NRA’s most balanced events.
Graham won at Polson, Three Forks, Eureka and Twin Bridges. Hollenbeck’s lone win came at Wibaux.
The stakes are raised with all three all-around contenders – Graham, Hollenbeck and Sam Levine of Wolf Creek – competing in the event. Graham and Levine are also team roping partners.
Also giving chase are Belgrade’s Albert Koenig, Chase Mitchell of Shepherd, Sam Levine of Wolf Creek and Havre’s George Marcenko. Koenig, fourth a year ago, won at Wilsall while Mitchell won at Conrad and Superior. Levine, who team ropes with Graham and is also in the all-around race, won at Big Timber and Butte.
Others ready to cash a check are Dalton Carr and James Ramirez of Manhattan, along with Winnett’s Jade Gardner and Taylen Lytle of Arlee. Carr won at Gardiner, while Ramirez was a winner at Choteau. Gardner used a big win at Hamilton to reach the NRA Finals, while Lytle won the regular-season finale in Helmville.
No event has so many other variables. There are two cowboys, two horses, two ropes and one steer. A lot can go wrong and a lot can go right.
Sam Levine of Wolf Creek returns to defend his team roping heeling title. But he will have a different partner. Levine is roping with heading standings leader Jack Graham of Lakeview, Ore. Ironically, Graham and Levine are 1-3 in the all-around cowboy standings and also qualified in tie-down roping.
All 10 team roping headers have a mathematical chance at a title and the top six team roping heelers.
Graham and Levine won at East Helena and Superior. Levine opened the year with a win at Conrad, with Travis Nichols, his 2017 NRA Finals team roping partner. This year, Nichols will be roping with Kory Mytty of Lolo and University of Montana rodeo coach.
Shawn Bessette of Great Falls and Sid Sporer, of, Cody, Wyo., are second in the team roping standings. Bessette trails Graham by just $232, while Sporer trails Levine by $892. Bessette and Sporer won at Big Timber, Ennis and Twin Bridges.
Former champion Jason Carlson and Zachary Schweigert of Livingston won at Wilsall, Townsend, Butte and Hamilton.
Shawn Bessette won NRA team roping heading titles in 2011, 2014 and 2015, while Carlson won in 2013. Sporer is a three-time (2006, 2008, 2010) team roping heeling champ, while Shane Bessette of Great Falls won in 2009, 2011 and 2014. Shane Bessette is roping with Greg Goggins at the 2018 Finals.
The pairing of Chance Paradis and Rich Carpenter won at Polson and Eureka while long-time partners Jace Bishop and Chris Barthelmess won at Choteau.
He was second a year ago. In 2018, Payton Fitzpatrick did his darndest to make sure he moved up one coveted spot at this year’s NRA Finals.
The Polson bull rider had six top-two finishes this past summer, including victories at Choteau, Shelby, Scobey and Twin Bridges to put some distance between him and the rest of his peers.
Only two others – Clayton Ahlgren of Grass Range and Jordan’s Kelly Murnion – can catch Fitzpatrick in the standings.
And that’s where it becomes interesting. Bull riding is the most difficult event. At four events, there were no qualified rides and at 17 rodeos, there were not enough rides to pay out the top four places.
Ahlgren, the 2012 champion, also has four wins. He bested the competition at Three Forks, Townsend, Butte and Hamilton. He was the only qualified rider at Butte.
Murnion won at Conrad, Big Timber and Wibaux, where he was the only bull rider to post an eight-second ride. Fitzpatrick was the only rider to make the whistle at Twin Bridges.
And should the top three stumble, there are seven others ready to cash a check. The group includes 2011 champion Gerald Eash of Trego and Jordan’s Connor Murnion, the 2016 champion. Quinn Greenough of Bozeman, son of PRCA world bareback champion and recent ProRodeo Hall of Fame inductee Deb Greenough, put himself in the bull riding finals with a big win at Deer Lodge. His ride of 84 points is also the high-mark ride of the year.
Give it to Shai McDonald for a second year in a row. The home-schooled high schooler used 10 top-two finishes to pull away from the rest of the field during the summer of 2018. McDonald, also the reigning Montana state high school champion, has won $8,935 this year, the most for a single event, cowgirl or cowboy.
McDonald closed her summer with a rousing finish, winning both Hamilton and Helmville to put the gold buckle out of reach. She also won at Wilsall and Three Forks. McDonald was second at Gardiner, Big Timber, Choteau, Twin Bridges, Deer Lodge and Wibaux.
It was enough to separate from 2016 champion Shelby Rasmussen of Bozeman. Rasmussen, the Triple Crown winner --- barrel racing, breakaway roping and all-around in 2016 – won at Superior and Butte this past summer. The Montana State University cowgirl also leads the all-around standings.
Tammy Jo Carpenter of Kalispell returns in barrel racing. The former all-around champion, was second in barrel racing last year. She needs the barrel racing money this year, chasing Rasmussen in the all-around standings. Carpenter won at Shelby, Twin Bridges and Deer Lodge.
McDonald is the first back-to-back champion since Becky Fuson (formerly Toavs) in 2008 and 2009. Fuson is fourth in the 2018 standings. She won at Gardiner and Eureka.
Also in the field is Montana State cowgirl Celie Salmond of Choteau, 2013 champion Taylour Russell of Conrad and Tayla Moeykens of Three Forks, who won three junior barrel racing titles, including 2016 and 2017. Salmond won at Conrad and Boulder.
In 2010, Cierra Kunesh won the NWRA all-around and barrel racing. In 2018, the Helena cowgirl is trying to expand her rodeo resume. Kunesh leads a tightly-bunched field in the most unpredictable events. There were 22 different winners in breakaway at NWRA rodeos this summer in Montana.
That includes Kunesh, a winner at Deer Lodge, Boulder and Hamilton. She shared first place at both Boulder and Hamilton with Quinn Briggs, of Cardwell, Idaho who has qualified in third. Kunesh holds a lead of $545 over Jill Lufkin, of Menan, Idaho.
Kunesh is also third in the all-around cowgirl standings.
Lufkin won at Townsend and shared first at Butte. She was also second at Polson and Big Timber.
Gracely Speth of Bozeman used a win worth $1,121 at East Helena to jump into title contention. Hysham’s Tiffany Ogren used a handful of top-four finishes to be within reach.
Tammy Jo Carpenter carries extra incentive with her rope. The 2015 champion from Kalispell is also chasing her fourth all-around title.
How close were the events: Just two-tenths of a seconds separated the top eight places in Three Forks, while four-tenths separated the top eight in Choteau.