The Justin Finale at the Washington State Fair Pro Rodeo in Puyallup, Washington, opened last night, September 6, and runs through this Sunday, September 9. It’s an all-important, big-money event that plays out with critical, crunch-time timing, and will have a significant role in determining this year’s make-or-break Wrangler National Finals Rodeo fate for some. Reserved only for the Top 24 contestants in each event from this year’s Wrangler ProRodeo Tour—with $20,000 added per event—Puyallup has a lot of pull when it comes to who will be packing up and heading to Vegas.
Puyallup may also end up packing a punch in what’s been a friendly but fierce feud at the top of the world team roping standings since about the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Frontier Days Rodeo back in July. It’s basically been a back-and-forth knife fight between Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira, and Dustin Egusquiza and Kory Koontz, with a third team that’s been tethered to the top quite a lot this year, Clay Smith and Paul Eaves, hanging tough toward the top virtually all season long continuing to add additional spice to this 2018 contenders conversation.
On the occasion of Junior’s 28th birthday on September 6, I wanted to give him the evening off. So I called my old amigo Kory. I coincidentally called the veteran of this crew at 6:30 p.m., and—classic Kory—he picked right up. From the buzz in the background, I first asked if he was at a rodeo. Sure enough, he was at Puyallup.
“What time does it start?” I asked.
“Right now,” KK replied. “Hold on, let’s listen to Randy Corley’s opening prayer.”
So we did. And when Corley was done, we simultaneously said, “Amen.”
Next up—a few seconds later—the National Anthem. Kory, who was horseback, took his hat off and put it over his heart. He asked if I could hear it, and offered that if I couldn’t he’d sing it to me. I could hear it loud and clear, so we went silent again on our conversation, and I stood at my desk in California, looked out my window at our family arena and the American flag flapping in the evening breeze, and listened with him.
Figuring Kory probably needed to go get ready to rope, I offered to excuse him until after they did.
“Ah heck, I’m a veteran, what would you like to talk about today?” he said, chuckling.
So I shot a round at him, rapid-fire. Just a few quick, fun questions that I figure a lot of people would wonder about, if they happened into a conversation with the guy who at 47 will rope at his 22NFR this December with a partner who right now is only 22 years old (Dustin’s 23birthday is coming up on September 19). Oh, and in case you’re curious, Kaleb is the same age as Junior at 28. Here are a few outtakes from Kory’s pre-game warm-ups at Puyallup…
Kendra Santos: Last week, you and Dustin were kings of the world team roping standings mountain by a mere $456-a-man margin over Kaleb and Junior. This week, both teams cracked the $100,000 mark, and Kaleb and Junior pulled ahead by $5,581. Bring us up to speed on this last week.
Kory Koontz: We split second and third with Clay and Paul on our first steer at Ellensburg, and came back in good shape in the average, but didn’t do any good on Sunday. (Kory won’t say it, but they were high team, and Dustin missed their last one. Hey, it happens, and as we all know by now, when Dustin connects, records do tend to fall.) Kaleb and Junior placed in the second round, came back sixth or seventh on Sunday, placed in the short round, and moved up to fourth in the average at Ellensburg. They also placed at Dillon (Montana; fifth) and Filer (Idaho; fourth). So they had a good week.
KS: A lot of people are now following this recent ping-pong match between your two teams. How’s it been playing out from your perspective?
KK: Kaleb and Junior, Clay and Paul, and us have all three been neck-and-neck. A couple of heelers—Trey Yates and Joseph Harrison—have also moved up and within range of us.
KS: You’re all after the same set of gold buckles. For those who aren’t sure what this roping rivalry is really like behind the scenes, describe your relationships with these guys.
KK: We’re all friends, and I’ve been good friends with each of them since he came into the PRCA. Junior was hooked in with Jake (Barnes, who’s also a close friend and past partner of Kory’s), so I’d met him out at the NFR before he came over here and started rodeoing. We’ve stayed close along the way, and we talk a lot. I’ve roped with Driggers as second partners a little bit, and we’ve gotten to be good friends, too. We talk about stuff all the time, including Christian things on a personal level. I’ve always rooted for him, and tried to be there for him as a friend.
KS: Is this really a friendly feud?
KK: Oh yeah, definitely. Dustin and I have all the respect in the world for every guy in the race. We’d also really love to kick their butt. I feel like that’s the healthiest competition there is.
KS: Compare your team’s strengths to theirs.
KK: They’re fairly similar. Dustin is very aggressive and ropes really fast, then it’s up to me to make sure I get the steer caught. I’ve got to ride sharp enough and do good enough to make sure I catch. Driggers is pretty aggressive most of the time, and Junior is also. I’d say they play more off of each other than we do. If Driggers throws a little faster, Junior makes sure he catches. If Driggers doesn’t get the right go and ends up taking another swing or two, then Junior throws faster to make up the time. Both of our teams are very similar, bottom line, with aggressive headers and heelers who can be aggressive, but also make sure they catch.
KS: Is there a generation gap between you and all these 20-somethings in the mix?
KK: There’s a big gap age-wise. I feel fortunate to be in this group and competing at this level at 47 with guys who are about half my age. When it comes to Kaleb and Junior, and Clay (27) and Paul (28), I don’t really think that the way we look at each other or the friendships we have has much to do with age.
KS: How much fun are you having rodeoing this year?
KK: I’ve always said it’s fun when you win. I’m winning more, so I’m having way more fun now than in my whole career. The best I’ve ever done before was win $90,000 in the regular season, back when I was roping with Jake. We’re at $100,000 now with several rodeos left. So I’ve been loving it.
KS: How big a deal do you think it is to win the regular-season championship?
KK: I’ve never done that before, and I think it’s a huge deal. I almost think they should give a world title for that. It’s one thing to have 10 great days in Vegas, and win the world title for that. It’s another thing to battle for one full year, through the ups and downs at 75 rodeos. That’s a big deal, and it would be a huge accomplishment. I think they give the guys who win the regular season a buckle and a $7,500 bonus. In the cowboys’ eyes, it’s a bigger deal than that, because of what it takes to get it done.
KS: Do you dream about winning a gold buckle at this stage of your game?
KK: I wouldn’t call it dreaming about it, but I will say there’s always been something deep down inside of me that wants to win a gold buckle. I’ve pictured myself winning it, and I’ve worked hard to win it. My life doesn’t revolve around it. But I do think about it and I do want to win it. For years and years, the main thing was making a living. Since my kids are grown and I’m older now, the focus has changed from providing for my family and paying the bills to “let’s try to win this thing.” Getting close to the gold buckle means I’m making a living. That’s always the main thing. I really have nothing to lose now. I’m good if I don’t win it, and dang good if I do. I have nothing to get nervous about.