Their entire season was based on a game of horse roulette and in the end, the gambles of a pair of college freshmen paid off.
Despite early-season struggles and late-season horse changes, Chance Kiehne and Michael Trujillo came together at the right time, winning the College National Finals Rodeo team roping championship with a time of 35.4 seconds on four runs.
"It’s a good feeling; it means a lot," Kiehne said. "It doesn’t really pay you anything, so it’s not worth it to go out there and try to win money. You go out there to win the title. The title is the only thing that happens, and being freshmen, it really gives us a lot of confidence."
For the duo, the win in Casper, Wyo., marked the perfect ending to a rookie year full of twists and turns. They had never roped together before embarking on their first season at Eastern New Mexico and, as is wont with a new pair of ropers, the header and heeler weren’t immediately on the same page.
"It was pretty rough at first," Trujillo said. "It took us about the whole first semester to get used to each other."
But their luck didn’t simply change with their familiarity. After placing at just one of five fall-season rodeos, Kiehne and Trujillo were in need of a big spring effort. But before it began, Trujillo had to put down his best heeling horse. It left the Fort Portales, N.M., native to choose his mount on a week-by-week basis.
"I have a bunch of horses at my house and would just kind of pick one out every week to try and see which one fit me best," Trujillo said. "I had to ride four different horses at five rodeos. That wasn’t really helping us, either, but we managed to get by."
He and Kiehne did more than that. By the end of the season, they had gone from 10th place to first, winning the Southwest Region title despite the weekly changes. The top-three finish also earned them a spot at the CNFR, but which horse would Trujillo take? The answer, it turns out, was "none of the above."
"It turned out that none of [the horses I rode] really fit me," Trujillo said. "They’re all head horses or just not ready yet. So about a week before the finals started, I bought a horse."
Kiehne couldn’t believe that news. He had seen Trujillo on that horse just days earlier and it didn’t appear that they got along all that well, either. Certainly Trujillo wasn’t planning on using his brand new horse on college rodeo’s grandest stage. Or was he?
"We’re in Cortez, Colo., at a ProRodeo and he was on [his old horse] the grey and I said, ‘Thank God,’" Kiehne said. "But the next day, in Cody, Wyo., he tries [his newly purchased horse] the black and I thought maybe he just wanted to ride him a little bit. Then Monday [at the CNFR] I pulled up there and danged if he don’t have that new horse saddled up."
Trujillo had only roped with his new horse about five times before he took him to Casper, but felt confident because the horse had belonged to veteran roper John Paul Lucero. He purchased the horse from roper Shawn Vargas, so he felt confident the horse would feel comfortable in the arena. The first run, however, was a bit nerve-wracking.
"I backed up into the box and the crowd was going a little crazy and he kind of went up on his front end a little bit," Trujillo said. "I thought, ‘Man, this is going to be a wild week.’"
Meanwhile, Kiehne was trying not to think about it at all. He had seen Trujillo find success on several different horses already, and in Kiehne’s mind, all he had to do was "give him a chance to catch two feet."
Kiehne followed through on that plan and Trujillo made his new horse work as the pair tied for eighth with an 8.8-second run in the first round.
"We were real happy with the 8.8 after only 20-some odd teams were coming back for their second one," said Kiehne, who roped with a Fast Back Ultimate 4 Extra Soft rope. "We knew we did really good and split eighth and ninth and knew another half of the teams would go out."
For the first time this year, the CNFR went from a three-loop rule to a two-loop system, which quickly had an impact. Fewer teams came back with a clean run on their first attempt and, of those, even fewer were also successful in the second and third rounds.
"The steers weren’t easy; they were real uneven," Kiehne said. "Some ran hard and were real fast and some were slow and couldn’t even break the rope on the barrier. The steers had a lot to do with it, but the three-loop rule, they eliminated that so people only had one bullet to catch. Some could do it and some couldn’t."
Kiehne and Trujillo proved that they could, catching their second steer in 7.9 seconds. Trujillo was only able to get one heel on their third run and they settled for 12.1 seconds.
"I didn’t think we were really going to have a chance after that, but the steers were so uneven that it was kind of anyone’s game," said Trujillo, who roped with Cactus’ C4. Instead, just seven teams were clean in all three runs and Kiehne and Trujillo were the second high call coming back to the short go-round.
"We were a little nervous, I could tell, but we were more confident in each other," Trujillo said. "I knew Chance was going to catch him and put him out there in front of me and all I had to do was worry about catching two feet."
"It turned out just being a catching game," Kiehne added.
But in the finals, it was time to put the pressure on, and Kiehne and Trujillo couldn’t have drawn a much better steer. Kiehne caught the head and took it to the arena’s sidewall, setting Trujillo up for a 5.8-second run—their fastest of the week and the second-fastest of the short go. When the final team couldn’t put together a fourth clean run, the title belonged to the Eastern New Mexico cowboys.
"I just tried to keep the steer in front of me," Trujillo said. "He started drifting on me, but I was able to get my loop set ... and we were national champions."
For each, the championship was something to celebrate with family. Much of Trujillo’s, including his father Jerry who inspired him to take up roping at the age of 14, was in the stands at the Casper Events Center.
To Kiehne, the title came thanks in part to a family of ropers, including his father Gary, his mother and sisters, his uncles—including Arky Kiehne—and girlfriend Chelsea Perez.
"I wouldn’t be here without them," Chance said.
Some strategic—and perhaps lucky—horse choices along the way certainly didn’t hurt.
Ty Breuer is a man of few words.
"He lets his feet do the talking," Breuer’s Central Wyoming College coach Rick Smith says. Breuer’s spurs were heard loud and clear at the Casper Events Center as the cowboy put together one of the most dominating bareback riding weeks in CNFR history.
"I don’t think it’s really set in yet," Breuer said moments after his ride. "I just acted like I was way behind and went out there and did what I had to do."
He did more than that. Breuer finished in the top four in all three rounds of the long go, giving himself a remarkable eight-point cushion heading into Saturday’s short go. But instead of coasting to the national championship, Breuer spurred aggressively and notched an 82.5-point ride on Sutton Rodeo’s Royal River. The mark tied the highest-marked ride of the week and gave Breuer the average title by a whopping 17.5 points.
Saddle Bronc Riding
When Kaleb Asay and Isaac Diaz first met, Asay was a middle-schooler and Diaz a cash-strapped saddle bronc rider competing at the Cody (Wyo.) Nite Rodeo. Half a decade later, Asay travelled with the seasoned veteran and became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Saddle Bronc Rookie of the Year. At the CNFR, they shared a national championship.
Diaz tied for the short go-round win with 77.5 points and Asay closed out the competition with 74.5 points, each ride giving them 306.5 points and a title.
"I’m tickled to share it with him," said Diaz, who rodeos for Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas. "We all drove around his rookie year and I’ve known him for years and watched him in high school. He’s a great bronc rider. I’m so proud."
Next up: a run at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Diaz, looking for his third trip to Las Vegas, and Asay, trying for his first after a successful season with Vernon College in Wichita Falls, Texas, hoped the week in Casper might give them the momentum through the busiest portion of the professional rodeo season.
Jeff Askey wasn’t around to see the bull China Grove take Riggin Phillips to the third-round win.
And the scouting report ended up going awry. The left-handed spin may not have been expected, but it was good enough for the biggest score of the week as Askey scored 88.5 points to beat Phillips by one point for the national championship.
"I talked to my friend and he said that bull was right there around to the right, up and down and looked real cool to get on," the University of Tennessee at Martin cowboy said. "He ended up going around to the left, but I got around there."
Askey’s short-round score gave him 248 points on three qualified rides and he was one of five bull riders to cover three. It was the first time since 2005 that a cowboy didn’t cover four bulls in four rounds. College of Southern Idaho’s (Twin Falls) Tag Elliott finished in the top four for the third time in four years. He rode 10 of 12 bulls over that span.
Tie Down Roping
Ryan Bothum shook his head as he was riding out of the arena. The Connor State College tie-down roper didn’t think his 10.3-second run in the short go was going to be enough. But one long run and one no time later, Bothum took his victory lap, winning the title with a total of 42.6 seconds on four head.
"I drew a good calf, but I didn’t think 10.3 was going to be fast enough," Bothum said. "I was two seconds behind everyone so I was trying to make up a little ground. I was 10.3, so obviously I didn’t do that, but I got it done and I guess I put the pressure on them to come and get me."
Bothum is the son of David Bothum, an NFR qualifier in saddle bronc riding.
Taylor Nahrgang was a part of the 2009 steer wrestling national championship. This time, the buckle has his name on it. One year after hazing for teammate and CNFR champ Wyatt Smith, Nahrgang won one for himself by taking down four steers in 18.1 seconds.
"I’m happy for all four runs," the Montana-Western (Dillon) bulldogger said. "I wouldn’t say any of my final three runs were picture perfect, but I just had to cowboy up and get it done. I’m just glad that it turned out the way it did."
Nahrgang was one-tenth of a second off the arena record at 3.4 seconds in the first round and was simply solid over his final three runs to win by nearly an entire second over Howard College’s Jason Schaffer. Schaffer shared the men’s all-around title with Wharton (Texas) County Junior College’s Caleb Smidt.
Sydni Blanchard’s week could hardly have had a more ominous start. On her way to Casper, the truck she was riding in suffered engine problems. Once she got to the CNFR, she suffered a concussion and spent time in the emergency room the night before her first run.
One week later, the troubles were all worth it when she won the barrel racing championship with a time of 57.87 seconds on four runs.
"It was a very eventful week," said Blanchard, who rode for Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, N.M. "I thought it was a bad sign with all that went wrong before I even made a run.
"But it was all worth it."
Blanchard dedicated the title to Megan McCain, a teammate who died prior to the college rodeo season when a pickup full of Mesalands cowgirls was struck by a drunk driver.
Jordan Muncy-Taton, sister of World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Taos, won the breakaway roping for Panhandle State University (Goodwell, Okla.) as well as the women’s all-around title. Jordan Thurson was the national goat tying champion from Gillette (Wyo.) College, which also won the women’s team title. The men’s team title went to Vernon College.