Clay Ullery and Matt Zancanella battled Jade Schmidt and Jade Nelson all through the 2022 ProRodeo season right down to the final steer of the RAM Badlands Circuit Finals Rodeo in Minot, North Dakota, on Oct. 16, 2022.
In the end, the teams elbowed their way to a virtual tie: Each team earned $5,372 during the circuit finals rodeo, each team earned a championship title, and each team will head to Colorado Springs, Colorado, next July to represent North and South Dakota at the NFR Open.
Circuit Finals Champs at Last
Schmidt and Nelson teamed up three years ago after roping together while working on Nelson’s ranch. They’ve qualified to the circuit finals every year since pairing up.
“We were second last year,” Nelson, 30, noted. “We were smooth on three, but another team was faster.”
The team’s strength is their consistency.
“We work on catching a steer every time and not necessarily trying to be fast,” Nelson explained. “If they let us win something, great. If not, we’ll go catch the next one.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time roping together and working to put our run together,” added Schmidt, 27, who trains horses when not roping.
The team kicked off their season strong with a third-place finish in Clear Lake, South Dakota. They didn’t go much over the Fourth of July but got hot in August.
“We were just kinda on the top from there,” said Nelson, who runs a ranch, works several days a week at the local sale barn in Midland, South Dakota, and trains horses in his ‘spare time.’ “We placed right along and had a good week where we placed at six of seven rodeos. That was helpful.”
They held the circuit year-end lead for a bit, but Ullery and Zancanella came on strong at the end of the season and carried a lead of just over $3,000 into Minot.
“We were wanting to try to catch Clay and “Zanc,” but they hardly ever mess up,” noted Schmidt, who lives in Box Elder, South Dakota.
“The whole year, our game plan was to try to win the year-end,” Nelson said. “But we were behind so we thought we should try to win the average. We just tried to go catch everything and if they screwed up, we might win it anyway. If not, oh well, we’d still get to go to the NFR Open.”
The NFR Open is the national championship rodeo of the PRCA’s circuit system. Only the year-end champions and the winners of each of the circuit finals rodeos qualify to compete in the lucrative event.
Once in Minot, Schmidt and Nelson displayed the consistency that got them there, posting runs of 6.7 seconds, 5.7 seconds and 6.1 seconds, which allowed them to pick up second- and fourth-place round checks.
Going into the final night, they trailed Ullery and Zancanella by 0.8 seconds, but when Zanc roped a leg on the final steer, it left the average in Schmidt and Nelson’s hands.
Their three-steer total of 18.5 seconds was 0.8 seconds better than Cameron Irwin and Cash Hetzel—the very team that beat Schmidt and Nelson for the average title a year ago.
“That’s just exciting,” said Schmidt, who claimed his first average championship and will rope in his first NFR Open next summer. “To get to rope for that much money and against that level of competition…. I’m happy to get to go.”
Nelson already has a Badlands Circuit Finals title under his belt, earned in 2019 with Turner Harris.
“I’m kinda excited,” he admitted about returning to the national circuit final stage—he competed at the event in 2020, when it moved from Florida to Greeley, Colorado, due to COVID-19. “They add a lot of money.”
Nelson thinks his team will shine in the NFR Open’s tournament-style format.
“I think it will fit us really good,” he said. “You just go make your run and know that you don’t have to win the rounds every time; just keep advancing to make a lot of money.”
Four and Two
Ullery and Zancanella set out in 2022 with a main goal of getting inside the top 30, but also to win the Badlands Circuit championship.
Though separated in age by nearly two decades, both are accomplished ropers and have gelled into a solid team. Ullery, of Valleyview, Alberta, has a Canadian championship on his resume and Aurora, South Dakota’s Zanc has roped in Las Vegas at the Wrangler NFR three times. He is closing in on $1 million in career earnings.
“This is our second year to rope together, and Clay designated Badlands this year,” said Zancancella, 46. “We set it as a goal to win the circuit this year. We also wanted to make it into the top 30 so we could get into the good winter rodeos, but it didn’t work out that way.”
“It was kind of a weird year, I guess,” offered Ullery, 29. “We didn’t accomplish what we set out to but, all in all, it was a pretty good year.
“I learned a lot from Zanc,” he continued. “He helped me tie up a lot of loose ends about head horses that I didn’t understand.”
Despite early struggles on the road, the team began to accumulate wins within their home circuit. By late summer, they took the lead and never relinquished it. They won regular season events in Glasgow and Wolf Point and picked up big checks in Rapid City, Clear Lake, Belle Fourche and Mandan.
“It was kind of up and dow. We had weeks where we did good, but we also left a lot of money on the table,” Zanc admitted wryly. “We missed a lot of steers and a lot of opportunities, but we’ll go at them again next year.”
Going into the circuit finals rodeo, the strategy was fairly simple.
“Our biggest thing at the finals was to try to make our runs and try not to beat ourselves,” Zanc said.
“Try not to mess up and go as fast as we can,” Ullery added, laughing.
With a 6.5-second run, they were well behind Tucker McDaniel and Clint Cobb’s round-winning 5.3 in the opening round, but they rebounded with a 5.1 to win the go.
“That last one was slow and trashy,” Ullery said of their penalty-laced final run. “But it was pretty much all decided by that point as far as the year-end titles.”
Their final-round run at 11.9 seconds landed them third in the average with 23.5 seconds.
Ullery won $25,834 in the Badlands Circuit this year, while Zanc banked $26,456. The championship was Zanc’s fourth in the Badlands Circuit and Ullery’s first, but he also won the 2019 circuit title in the Maple Leaf Circuit’s inaugural year.
As for the NFR Open, Zanc has roped five or six times in the past, including most recently in 2021 when he made the final four.
“Hopefully, we will take the money we won at the circuit finals and go down there and win a bunch—maybe win enough to have a shot to go to the National Finals,” Zanc said. “We’re not going to beat up and down the road but, hopefully, we can do some good there and at a couple of big ones.”
“It’s always great to go rope for that kind of money, especially since it counts now,” said Ullery, who has been to the NFR Open twice previously. “It’s a great event that’s impactful for making the NFR.”
Ullery, who called himself the oldest, most experienced rookie in the Badlands Circuit this year, enjoyed his first season.
“I really enjoyed the Badlands Circuit. The rodeos are outstanding, the people are good and the competition was good,” he said. “I’ll never regret it.”
“The Badlands Circuit does an amazing job and it was a fun, fun, fun rodeo,” Zancanella agreed.