When team ropers Cole Thomas and Bryce Graves describe their first trip to the 2022 RAM Southeastern Circuit Finals Rodeo held Nov. 11–13, in Davie, Florida, this is the description they use: Nerve-racking.
That’s because the permit holders found themselves inside a dogfight for the win that came down to the very last steer.
“It was a good team roping, good watching,” said Thomas, 23. “I didn’t know who did what when it was all done.”
“After we roped the last one, I got to thinking,” said Graves, 20. “I knew it was close. I thought maybe we tied or won it by a tenth. It was pretty nerve-racking.”
Thomas and Graves roped together throughout the regular season, picking up some good checks at rodeos like Jackson, Mississippi, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, and earning reserve finishes at five rodeos.
“It was fairly smooth,” Thomas noted. “We placed along and did good at a lot of those around the house. We never tried to outdo ourselves.”
Both Mississippi ropers followed their dads into the sport and grew up roping. They were raised about an hour and a half from each other with Thomas living in Meadville and Graves in Poplarville.
“We high school rodeoed together,” noted Graves, whose dad, Frank, is a three-time National Finals Rodeo veteran. “He’s a little older than me. He was a senior when I was a freshman, and we’ve gone to ropings together a lot.”
Pairing up for ProRodeo just over a year ago, the duo earned their first berth to the Southeastern CFR in 2022.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Graves admitted. “I was pretty nervous.”
“I knew we couldn’t catch Braxton and Brad (Culpepper—the regular season leaders), so we said, ‘Let’s go catch three steers, try to get a little round money; dang sure shoot for the average and see how it goes,’” Thomas said.
If they suffered from rookie jitters, Thomas and Graves didn’t show it. Instead, they blew the doors off in Round 1, stopping the clock at 4.4 seconds for the go round win.
“We had run the steers down the day before,” Thomas said. “We drew really good in the first round. That steer was one I had said, ‘Man, I like him,’ when we were running them down.”
The second go round wasn’t quite as smooth with a steer that ran up the rope after Thomas turned him. But, knowing they had some time to spare, the team got him caught and held in the average with a clean run of 7.5 seconds. Justin Yost and Thomas Smith were the round winners with 5.4 seconds.
Going into the third and final round on Sunday afternoon, the average was stacked up tight with Brady Barretine and Craig Stevens in the lead. Thomas and Graves were 1.0 second off with three other teams between them.
“In the third go, we had a steer that was pretty slow, and I didn’t like him as much,” Thomas admitted. “I tied him on and we were fast enough.”
For Graves, the average seemed out of play.
“I didn’t think we had a good shot at the average. Those guys in the lead were mid-fives on both steers. I was roping for the go round.”
The aggression paid off. Thomas and Graves pulled tight on their final steer in 4.5 seconds—enough to win their second go round of the weekend. When the averages were figured, their 16.4 was 0.1 seconds better than both the Barretine and Stevens team and the Bradley Massey and Reno Gonzales team, who tied for second.
“The steers were good and it made for a good rodeo,” Graves said.
The win was a little extra special for Thomas. His girlfriend Heather McLaughlin won the breakaway roping in Davie in its inaugural year to be included in the 2022 Southeastern CFR.
“It’s very cool,” Thomas said, noting that she also won the first and third go rounds en route to the title. “It made for an easy ride home. When you don’t do good, it’s a hard ride home.”
Graves also split time between competing and spectating in Davie. His girlfriend, Karrigan Cagley, was also in the breakaway and his older brother, Chase, qualified in the team roping as well. Both played a role in his win via his horse Josey.
“My brother trained her and I won the 2019 High School Finals on her but, then, we sold her in 2020,” he explained.
Cagley now owns the mare.
“I have nothing but younger ones, so Karrigan let me ride her down there and she rode her in the breakaway too,” Graves continued. “She’s a good horse for sure. One of a kind.”
Thomas and Graves have punched their tickets to next summer’s NFR Open, the national championship event of the circuit system which brings together the year-end champions and circuit finals rodeo winners from each circuit to compete for a share of the $1-million purse. The event is held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.
“It’s amazing,” Thomas said of qualifying for the event.
“I’m excited,” Graves agreed. “It’s a big opportunity for us. We need to start getting ready for it now.”
Both ropers appreciate that their circuit hosts numerous, good winter rodeos, giving them the chance to rope often, without a ton of travel. It fits particularly well for Graves, who is rodeoing for his dad at Pearl River College.
“I go to school and I rope, that’s about it,” he said, joking.
After trying out a couple of different majors, Graves is settled on business. He plans to stay on his permit while working on his horsepower in the coming year.
“There’s plenty to go to around here. I’m in no hurry to go run off rodeoing.”
Meanwhile, Thomas is looking to buy his rookie card and will see how the winter goes.
“We’ve got a lot of good winter rodeos down here,” he said.
He shoes horses in addition to roping, and he and McLaughlin have a leather shop producing reins, headstalls and other goods. Both Thomas and Graves cite their long friendship and shared goals as the keys to their successful partnership.
“We both get along pretty good,” Thomas said. “We have the same work ethic and love it as a sport.”
“We both have a pretty big desire to win and to get better all the time,” Graves added. “He usually turns them pretty fast and makes it easy on me.”