On the surface, Ryan VonAhn and Trevor Connolly couldn't be much different. The former grew up in a roping family and the latter brought rodeo into his. VonAhn, the header, is a talkative sophomore, made his way to Southeastern Oklahoma State in Durant after growing up in Sac City, Iowa. Connolly, a somewhat shy and nervous senior, grew up in Durant, and has never left. And only twists in each of their team roping plans brought them together. Two years later, VonAhn and Connolly are collegiate national champions.
"I tell you, it feels pretty good when you actually settle in and realize that you actually won something," VonAhn said. "My brother did it earlier and it's just great to follow in his footsteps."
Ryan's brother Kollin-who was ranked amongst the top five heelers in the world at press time-captured the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., in 2005.
Four years later, Ryan and Connolly followed suit, roping four steers in 30.1 seconds to beat a field of 35 of the nation's best young ropers by 2.7 seconds.
"It still feels pretty good," Connolly said a few days later. "The feeling hasn't worn off yet and it probably won't for a while. It really means a lot. It's something I've been working at my whole life. All I want to do is rope and it feels great that it paid off for us."
Especially considering they didn't even know each other two years ago.
When VonAhn's potential heeler decided to go elsewhere and Connolly's usual header found out he was ineligible, the two figured they might as well give it a shot together.
"It was kind of just luck that we wound up together, I guess," VonAhn said. "There was a kid and we were roping together and he ended up roping with someone else and the kid that [Connolly] was roping with ended up being ineligible. He just asked me to rope and we've just roped ever since and it always seems to work out."
They qualified for the CNFR together in 2008 and finished seventh. Determined to win the championship, they returned and won the Central Plains Region title and earned a second consecutive trip to Casper. If there was one thing they learned from their first trip and from Kollin VonAhn's advice, it was the importance of cleanly catching all four steers.
"He gave Ryan some advice and Ryan kind of works on me a little bit," Connolly said. "The biggest deal was just to catch."
Wanting to just put their first clean run together, they roped their first steer in 8.1 seconds, good for just 10th place in the first round.
But they tied for third in the second go-round with a 6.5-second run.
"It seemed like we drew a little better and maybe I got out a little better," VonAhn said. "It wasn't like we changed a whole lot, I think we just drew a better steer."
They had their third and final run of the long go that same Tuesday night and though there were three more nightly performances to come before the short go, VonAhn and Connolly knew a solid run of 10 seconds or less would bring them back.
They took just 7.8 seconds to catch their third, good enough for a seventh-place finish in the round and a spot in the top 12 in the average.
"The second one put us back perfect," Connolly said. "Then we kind of knew all we had to do was knock a third one down and if we did it in seven or eight seconds we'd probably be in the top three call-backs. We ended up being second."
They were just one-half second behind the leaders through three rounds and after the first 10 teams' times, they knew a 10-second run would give them a lead with only the leaders up after them.
A 7.7-second effort put them in the top spot and left the pressure on Zachary Merritt and Levi Tyan.
"Truthfully, the last steer, I thought if we would've drawn a little better we would've been able to put a little more pressure on," VonAhn said. "I got out a little late and that steer ran, but I thought if I could just catch him, hopefully everything else would fall apart."
It did when Merritt and Tyan missed on their first try and VonAhn let out a celebratory high-pitched scream.
"I kind of felt bad for those guys," Connolly said. "They roped great. But I was dang-sure excited, too, when I realized we were national champions."
It was extra special for VonAhn, who didn't get to see his brother win a national championship, but brought a second one home for the family.
"It was pretty neat," VonAhn said. "My mom and dad just came out for the short round when they heard we were doing good. They were pretty excited. My brother and I, Craig, were roping together and we won the state finals the year that [Kollin won the CNFR]. I think we wanted to stay a little longer, but Kollin wanted us to come home and see the things he had won. It was pretty neat to finally bring the same things home."
Kollin VonAhn didn't see his brother win the CNFR.
The eldest brother - Ryan roped with brother Craig when they were younger - was busy piling up his winnings while making a run at his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. He took first place at a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event in North Platte, Neb., that same weekend.
"He won both rounds there and the average," Ryan VonAhn said. "It wasn't a bad Father's Day present for my dad."
And pretty neat for a couple of guys who only rope together because they crossed paths at the right time. Connolly traveled to Iowa to practice with VonAhn before the CNFR and then returned there with him after capturing the title there. Now they're planning on a full slate of amateur and pro rodeos throughout the summer.
"Everything just worked out just right," Connolly said. "My partner turned up ineligible and Ryan was looking for one. Shoot, everything just worked out perfect."
Sometimes opposites attract.
Wyatt Smith, rodeoing for the University of Montana-Western in Dillon, was in a familiar position.
Just a few years earlier at the National High School Finals Rodeo, he was leading the steer wrestling and in the hunt for an all-around title going into his final run.
He won the steer wrestling by one-tenth of a second and captured the all-around.
Smith didn't cut it as close, but he duplicated the results at the CNFR, using a 5.1-second run in the short round to capture the bulldogging title and a share of the all-around.
"It came down to this exact same thing in the high school finals two years ago," Smith said. "Except that time I could be 5.7 and I was 5.6. I didn't even want to chance it this time."
Smith took down four steers in 19.1 seconds, beating the field by more than two seconds.
He tied with Jake Wright-who is the younger brother of reigning PRCA World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Cody-for the all-around title with 300 points. Smith's second event was saddle bronc riding while Wright's was bull riding.
Wright rides for Western Texas College in Snyder-which captured the men's team title.
Chad German's friends told him exactly what he needed to do to win a national championship.
Matt Austin and Beau Schroeder had each won titles at the CNFR in the past five years by covering four bulls.
German scored just 74.5 points in the short go-round, but it was good enough to make him the only bull rider to go 4-for-4.
And he celebrated by whipping his hat at Triple V Rodeo Company's Babe like a Frisbee.
"I never really heard the whistle, I just kept hanging on until I couldn't hang on no more," the Hill College (Hillsboro, Texas) cowboy said. "It's kind of unexplainable. We ride all year at the college rodeos just to have a chance to come up here. To be able to win it and ride all four, I'm about as happy as I ever have been in my life."
College of Southern Idaho's Tag Elliott, the only other bull rider to ride his first three bulls, was bucked off just before German nodded his head to finish second in the average at the CNFR for the second consecutive year.
At that point, German knew he only needed to make the whistle.
"Ugly but effective," German said. "That's kind of the name of the game-ride all your bulls and the rest will take care of itself."
A tough pen of calves wreaked havoc on the tie-down ropers throughout the CNFR-the fastest time was a 7.8, but nobody else went under 8.9-so Cody Prescott just concentrated on tying four. Especially after the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place cowboys all failed to complete their runs in the short go.
"You've just got to tie 'em down," said Prescott, a Southern Arkansas (Magnolia) cowboy. "These calves this year were terrible. They kicked and run up the rope. They just weren't very good calves for the CNFR. But that's what
I think I did better than anybody is just got by them."
Prescott clocked in at 14.9 seconds in the short go, finishing in a time of 50.9 seconds on four head to best the field by nearly four seconds.
Only five cowboys got a flag on all four runs.
"I don't think I roped to the best of my abilities, because of the calves, but I got by," Prescott said. "These calves were just tough."
An eighth-place finish in 2008 wasn't nearly good enough and third place was only going to pile on the bad memories.
South Dakota State's (Brookings) Rachel Tiedeman made her second consecutive short round at the CNFR as third high call and laid it all out on the line.
She followed up an eighth-place finish in 2008 with a title in 2009, jumping from third to first with a 14.15-second run in the short go and finishing four turns of the cloverleaf pattern in 57.38 seconds.
"I knew third place was just as good as 12th," Tiedeman said. "I just had to give it all that I could. The ground was getting faster, so I pretty much came in and gave it every ounce I had."
RC Landingham and Steven Peebles battled through 10 regular season rodeos and four rounds at the CNFR. When the dust settled, they were separated by a single point.
Landingham, a bareback rider from Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore., rode Harry Vold's Billy the Kid for 83.5 points, winning the national championship with 316 points on four rides.
"I was prepared for the best horses because I knew everything was going to be real strong and hard to ride," Landingham said. "We all had pretty equal horses. It just worked out the best for me, I guess."
Walla's Peebles and Feather River College's Danny Webb were separated by just one half-point in the average going into the championship short go-round.
Landingham had the first ride of the three and wasted no time putting the pressure on.
"I'd never even seen him before," Landingham said. "You've just got to ride them jump-for-jump. It's amazing, awesome, the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Saddle Bronc Riding
Bryan Martinat wasn't real pleased with himself. He knew he had a seven-point lead going into the short go and knew he made the whistle on Harry Vold's Jumpin Jack.
But it's not like him to coast to the finish line.
"I'm just fighting my head because I didn't ride that horse like I wanted to," Martinat said. "My dad's always taught me to finish things out and I didn't feel like I rode to the best of my ability."
He may not have finished the ride as he had hoped. But he couldn't have finished the week off any better.
Martinat closed out a dominating week with 75 points, giving him 307 on three and a national championship by six points over Western Texas College teammate Jake Wright.
"I'm proud of that and I just praise God for everything he's given me," Martinat said. "When I got off, I was real disappointed. But on the other hand, at least I rode her."
Goat Tying: Sarah Mulholland, University of Wyoming (Laramie), 27.1 seconds on four.
Breakaway Roping: Jessica Picchietti, Central Wyoming College (Riverton) 15.3 seconds on four.
Women's All-Around: Nikki Steffes, University of Wyoming, 292.5 points.
Women's Team: University of Wyoming, 690 points.