Past success proved a great indicator of current performance for a pair of roping teams during the 2022 Mountain States Circuit season and the RAM Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo held Oct. 21–22, in Loveland, Colorado.
Clayton Van Aken secured his fourth year-end championship roping this year with Jayden Johnson while J.C. Flake picked up his third average win, this time roping with buddy Pedro Egurrola.
The two teams will have the home circuit advantage next July when the Pikes Peak of Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, once again hosts the NFR Open, the crown jewel of ProRodeo’s circuit system.
Pedro Egurrola and J.C. Flake are actually a pair of Arizona cowboys who ended up rodeoing in Wyoming and Colorado. Flake rodeoed for the University of Wyoming (also Van Aken’s alma mater) and he flew Egurrola, who lives in Florence, up to shoe horses for him; during one trip, the pair hit the practice pen together and enjoyed it so much, they decided to hit the road.
Their first season together was 2021 and they finished inside the top 50 of the PRCA’s world standings.
“We started the year with the goal to make the NFR,” said Egurrola of the team’s 2022 outset.
Since Flake has a home in Laramie, Wyoming—their home base for the summer—Egurrola decided to switch from the Turquoise Circuit.
“We planned to make the circuit finals, but it wasn’t the main priority,” Egurrola, 27, continued. “Our main deal was the other rodeos, but we happened to do good at Cody [Wyo.] over the Fourth, which basically put us into the circuit finals. Then we just had to get our rodeo count in.”
“We placed at Cody—I think we won $4,000 there, so that was a good boost and made it more enticing,” Flake said. “I always make the circuit finals a priority because it’s been so good to me in the past.”
Flake, 23, won in Loveland previously with Paul Beckett in 2018 and with Jase Staudt in 2020.
“I’ve had great partners and we tend to draw pretty good,” he said humbly. “I like that place.”
Though the team struggled some with their big goal of punching a ticket to Las Vegas for the NFR, they set sights on the circuit and the opportunity that exists there, not only with money won at the circuit finals rodeo counting for 2023 but, also, to earn an invite to the NFR Open.
“When we figured out we weren’t going to make the NFR, we kind of dropped our goal to the circuit finals,” Egurrola said. “Our goal was to win at the circuit finals. We didn’t think we could get the year-end—those guys had us by a ways—so we knew we’d have to win the average to get to the NFR Open.”
Flake was ready when the gates opened in Loveland in 2022.
“We roped there last year and Pedro kind of got me in the shorts,” he laughed. “He reached a long way and I was not ready!”
“In the first round this year, he reached a long way and I was ready,” Flake said. “We cleaned it up pretty good.”
In fact, they won the opening round with a 5.5-second run.
After misjudging the second steer a bit and having to run him down for 7.7 seconds and no money just to stay in the average, the pair entered the final night as the second ranked team in the average behind Austin Crist and Josh Fillmore. Egurrola and Flake were determined to lay it out there in the final round.
“The guys behind us rope really good and they had a good steer, so the only way to win was to get aggressive,” Egurrola said.
“The team before us was 5.9 and we had to be like 6.4 to take the lead,” Flake noted. “But the guys ahead of us [in the average] had us by 0.9 seconds, so we wanted to try to put the pressure on them.”
They did that and more.
“I think my man threw his whole rope at him,” Flake said of Egurrola, laughing. “All I knew was I couldn’t see him and his loop came by me and caught. We were going at him.”
Egurrola and Flake were 5.1 on the final steer, good enough to tie Garrett Tonozzi and Cullen Teller for the win. With 18.3 seconds on three steers, they won the average by 1.3 seconds over Kyon and Clancey Kreutzer.
“We’re blessed to win and I’m just thankful to get to win with one of my best friends,” Flake said.
Both cowboys have experience roping at the NFR Open. Flake has been three times in the past and Egurrola was the Reserve Champ roping with Trevor Nowlin back in 2021.
“It’s such an advantage to get to Colorado Springs,” Egurrola said. “It’s a good opportunity to win a bunch if you do good and you’re not competing against so many teams.”
Only the year-end and circuit finals winners from each circuit qualify to the NFR Open.
“I like the arena in Colorado Springs; it’s cool how the people are kind of above you,” Flake said, also pointing out that the winners get an invite to the Cinch Playoff events at the end of the season. “There’s a great opportunity there. It’s like having another Houston or San Antonio right in the middle of the summer.”
For 2023, the team is splitting up.
“We’re still the best of friends, just going a different way,” Flake said. “I hope to make him rope with me at least three more times: the NFR Open, the Tour Finale and Sioux Falls.”
Been There and A Season of Firsts
Though he grew up outside of Casper, Wyoming, Mountain States Circuit born-and-raised, Jayden Johnson has never roped at Pikes Peak of Bust in Colorado Springs, even before the legendary rodeo agreed to host the NFR Open beginning in 2022.
“Since I turned 18 [and got my card], I’ve never met the qualifications to rope there,” Johnson, 26 now, noted ironically.
He’ll check that one off his bucket list in July 2023 thanks to earning his first year-end championship in the circuit heeling behind Clayton Van Aken. Johnson won $19,320 while Van Aken took home $20,660 for the year.
The duo didn’t pair up until mid-June. Van Aken, 30, wanted to stay closer to home, and so started the season without a partner, then filled in for Trey Yates at a few circuit rodeos early.
“We run some cows, I shoe horses and help some guys at some of the futurities,” Van Aken said, who was born in Southern California and moved to Wyoming to attend the University of Wyoming. “I came to UW and never left.”
Van Aken, who has a Masters degree in Sports Management and Finance, visited with Johnson earlier in the season about roping together.
“I had helped him and his dad at a horse show in Rapid City once, but we hadn’t really roped together much,” Van Aken said.
“We kind of talked about it this spring and then he called to see what I was doing,” Johnson said. “It worked out great. From day one, we were on the same page goal-wise, our run fit and it worked early in the season.”
Van Aken pointed out that he can rodeo for the Mountain States Circuit Finals as well as four regional rodeo associations’ finals all without having to break the bank putting fuel in the pickup.
“We pretty much had all the finals made after the Fourth of July,” he noted. “It’s funny how things happened…. We won money at Cheyenne and then three others right after that without really good runs. We placed with a leg at one and another one got rained out after we roped.
“We had a lead and just kept going,” Van Aken continued. “It’s always a goal to win, but things just kind of fell into place.”
Van Aken won the year-end title and average title in 2015 with Cullen Teller, and picked up more year-end championships with Richard Durham in 2017 and with Yates in 2018.
According to Johnson, that’s no accident.
“He has succeeded at all levels: jackpots, rodeos, horse shows,” Johnson said. “He’s got a winning attitude.”
That attitude infused the team as they rolled through the summer, picking up rodeo wins in Steamboat Springs, Hugo and Sterling, Colorado, and Ogallala, Nebraska.
“We stayed positive and never got down on each other,” Johnson said. “That made our bond stronger, being able to talk through things. I can’t thank him enough for the good job he did all year.”
Entering the circuit finals rodeo, the team had a decent lead on their closest competitors, Johnson’s cousins, Kellan and Carson Johnson, sons of PRCA World Champion Jhett.
“It’s awesome,” Johnson said of coming from a rodeoing family. “We actually traveled down there together and that was fun. They rope great too.”
Both Van Aken and Johnson were honored when their horses were voted the Mountain States Circuit Horses of the Year in their respective disciplines. Van Aken’s JB came to him from friend Wade Hooker, who sold the horse because he got too big to be a heel horse.
Johnson came by Nitro after the sale fell through with another buyer.
“It was a fluke deal,” he said. “I drove all night to South Dakota to go try him. I’m blessed to be able to have the chance to try him and to get him underneath me. He is one of the easiest horses I’ve ever ridden.”
Going into the Mountain States Circuit Finals Rodeo as the leaders, the strategy was simple.
“Not to change anything from what we’d done all year,” Johnson said.
They kickstarted their weekend by traveling north to the NILE rodeo in Billings, which they won, earning $2,440. They followed with the second-place finish in the first round in Loveland. Then, they took a no time in the second and went 10.1 in the third, failing to cash another check.
Despite that, they held their lead over Egurrola and Flake by about $3,000 each and will now look forward to Colorado Springs.
“I’m excited to go back. It’s a bit of a learning deal; [there’s a] little strategy to it,” Van Aken said.
Unlike his partner, he’s had plenty of experience in Penrose Stadium, home of the NFR Open.
“We put on ropings all summer there in Colorado Springs.”
Still, the opportunity presented is not lost on the veteran.
“It’s fun to rope for that amount of money any time.”
Johnson is a huge fan of his home circuit.
“It’s a competitive circuit for sure,” he said. “Some of the biggest rodeos of the year are here: Cheyenne, Sheridan, Casper. It’s really cool to have those rodeos that contestants go to all year here in our circuit.
“It’s been one of my main goals since I got my card and a dream come true to win it,” he added. “Hopefully it’s not the last one.”