There were so many ways the 2009 world team roping race could have gone. Chad Masters and Jade Corkill led the pack heading into the December 3-12 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo after a record-breaking regular season with $127,749 and $118,277, respectively, which broke Speed Williams and Rich Skelton's $110,626 record from back in 2000. Masters and Corkill set a new 3.3-second world and NFR record in round nine to lead the charge on that historic night, which earned a story all its own in next month's issue.
The new two-loop rule took most teams out of "on 10" contention in the average early. After three rounds, five of 15 teams had three steers caught. After six, that field narrowed to two. Going into round 10, Luke Brown and Martin Lucero had 14 seconds with which to tie Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper's 1994 NFR average record of 59.1 seconds. Brown and Lucero, and Nick Sartain and Kollin VonAhn were the only teams to catch their first nine steers, so had no less than second in the average sewn up, even if they missed their last one. We were all sad to see Brown and Lucero test that theory with a devastating illegal head catch on their last steer.
"I love the two-loop rule," Sartain said. "We aren't the fastest team, but we rope aggressive every time and we're fairly consistent roping pretty fast. I don't like
rebuilding. I embarrassed myself doing that last time I was here (in 2006 with Shannon Frascht; they won or placed in five of 10 rounds)."
"I'm with him," VonAhn added. "I don't feel like I'm a fast heeler. I roped a leg on our first steer. I wanted 10 by two feet, but I got nine of them."
Tell me you bet your personal Ponderosa on NFR sophomore Sartain and Finals freshman VonAhn winning it all-the average and the world, with a $106,292 NFR team roping earnings record to boot-and I'll have to ask you if Pinocchio is perched on a branch of your family tree. That's why the rodeo's Super Bowl sells out early every year-because you never know until the game is played.
Maybe it was an omen when all the team ropers ran the steers through on Tuesday, December 1 before NFR '09 kicked off that Thursday night, and defending World Champion Header Matt Sherwood walked up to Sartain and VonAhn when they were done and said, "You guys roped sharp today. Keep roping that way and you'll do great." What a shot in the arm for Sartain, who hadn't been to "The Show" in three years, and VonAhn, who was wide-eyed with wonderment at the mere thought of getting to ride in the grand entry on opening night.
"We had a plan when we came here," said Sartain, the 2000 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/Resistol Rookie of the Year, who lives in Yukon, Okla., and will be 31 on January 27. "I was going to try to get good starts every time, and we'd worked so hard to get our horses ready. At home our run seemed fast enough. And we knew we could make that run 10 times. The only question we had was, 'Was it really fast enough?'"
Considering the fact that they won or placed in seven of 10 rounds and, even with a leg in round one (without it, they'd have been 4.3 and split the round with JoJo LeMond and Randon Adams) and a barrier in round eight (take the 10 off and they'd have been 4.5 and split fourth three ways, though the additional pause needed not to break out would have added a little something to their time), came within a tenth of a second of tying Jake and Clay's record with 59.2 seconds on 10 steers, I think we can give that question the nod. With $106,292 on the week, including $43,954 for first in the average, Sartain and VonAhn won more than any other team at the Finals-ever. The previous bar of $98,714 was set by Masters and Allen Bach in 2006.
"Since it was my first time, I wondered if the run we'd been making that last month was good enough," humbly admitted VonAhn, 26, an Iowa native who currently calls Durant, Okla., home. "That run was in our comfort zone, but you never know how it's going to compare with everyone else's run."
They broke the 4-second barrier twice in 10 rounds. They shared the fourth-round victory lap with Travis Tryan and Michael Jones after a pair of 3.7-second runs. They split fourth and fifth with David Key and Rich Skelton on that magical night of round nine. Behind Masters and Corkill's 3.3 was JoJo and Randon's 3.4, and Clay Tryan and Cory Petska's 3.8. Holy smokes, it was crazy in such a cool way.
VonAhn didn't appear to have gotten the first-time jitters memo. "What I worked on this year was being able to focus on the run and riding good position," said the young gun who grew up in Sac City, Iowa, which is 75 miles east of Sioux City on a map. "I want to focus and pay attention to everything that happens throughout every run. Even though I roped a leg on my very first steer here (at the Finals), I set it down there when I wanted to and didn't panic."
Sartain and VonAhn took some breaks during the 2009 rodeo season, as neither is willing to rodeo himself into financial ruin. Fact is, when they started roping at the start of 2009 VonAhn told Sartain he had $3,000 he was willing to lay on the table. "I told Nick I was on board 100 percent, but that I'm not going to rodeo my money away," VonAhn said.
"If I don't have a good winter, I go home, ride outside horses and some of my own," Sartain agreed. "I've roped all my life, and always keep my money together."
I knew Kollin and I would get along famously when he told me he's never owned a credit card, though he did trip on his lip when I asked if he'd graduated from college at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant and he admitted to only lacking a couple of classes to get his diploma. Rest assured, rodeo's relentless education czar will hound and harass him until he crosses that finish line.
Sartain calls his sorrel horse Buddy because, "He's real friendly and wants to be your bud," he explained of the 13-year-old horse he bought last summer. "He's a nice horse, and he's great for this setup. He scores, leaves there really flat, pulls and finishes good."
VonAhn's horse, Frank, is 15. He just bought him in the fall from Frascht. He's the horse "Frosty" rode when he heeled for Sartain at the Finals. "He's a great horse," VonAhn said of his new bay bomber.
Frascht is a great friend to them both and was, in fact, this team's matchmaker. "Shannon and I roped together eight years," Sartain said. "He helped me and mentored me. When he quit going, he told me Kollin was the one I needed to rope with. Kollin's a great horseman, he's great with his rope and great to get along with."
Sartain and VonAhn didn't miss Sherwood and Adam's annual team roping earnings mark of $189,568 (2008) by much when they finished the year with $186,689 and $185,522. The difference in their dollars is explained by the fact that Kollin didn't get to enter Houston.
Their gold-buckle scenarios were a little different heading into round 10. "If we just won about fourth in the round and second in the average, Kollin had a good chance," Sartain explained. "I told Kollin that, and he said, 'No way. If you play it safe, I'll throw at him when we're running straight down the arena. We didn't back down all week. Let's go at him.'" Besides, their theory (and they're not alone) is that it's easier to be 4 in the Thomas & Mack Center Arena than 6. Their 4.8 was fourth in round 10 and also sealed the average deal.
"We're a team," Sartain said. "This is my best friend. We work hard together, we study the tapes, and we put all we can into it. When you work that hard and have the best horses you can find, you should win. When you believe in your partner, you're supposed to do good.
"I hate that everyone else's misfortune today was our good fortune. Every guy here is my friend. Chad and Jade roped great all year. They had a stellar season. Luke and Martin had a great week (they won $76,298, including second in the average and placing in six rounds for 45.1 seconds on nine).
"Things had to line up for me today to win it. Kollin had a better shot. We basically had a free roll at the last one, because we had second in the average won, no matter what. Kollin just had to place along. I needed more. I thought I had to win that last round to win it. I honestly thought Chad or Luke would win it (on the heading side). A lot of really unlikely things had to happen for me to win this."
Their first clue that it was possible came early in the year. "Before Houston this year (2009) we were winning the world," Sartain said. "That was a first for both of us, and was a big deal to us. That turned the light on for Kollin and I. It made us think maybe this could happen. It gave us a lot of confidence. I know this is a big surprise to the rest of the world, but to him and I it's not.
"We started practicing a year ago over Thanksgiving break at Kollin's place in Durant (Okla.). That's when we went to the arena and said, 'You're my partner and I'm yours.' We watched the Finals together every night. We roped all day, then watched our tape and every round of the NFR. That's when we started thinking about all we had going for us."
"We go everywhere together," VonAhn said. "And we've never had one argument or one fight. When times were down, we never once pointed the finger. It's always a team effort. This is hard for me to wrap my head around, I'm not going to lie."
VonAhn was the 2005 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping champ. Little brother Ryan won the NIRA team roping title in 2009.
Sartain topped the 2007 George Strait Team Roping Classic with Jhett Johnson, and in 2008 was the Fourth of July run's high-money team in all of ProRodeo with that year's PRCA Heeling Rookie of the Year, Rhen Richard.
Though Sartain noted that Frascht and Michael Jones are also originally from Iowa, the Hawkeye State is a whole lot better known for its corn crop than team roping. "I wanted to rope for a living, and I knew it wasn't happening in Iowa," VonAhn said.
"One day, it started snowing. One of my best friends looked at me and said, 'We'll never rope good enough if we stay here.' So we got in the truck and headed south to the Cowboy Capital (Stephenville, Texas)."
In one of those "friend of a friend" deals, they landed at 1993 NFR champion header Kevin Stewart's house in nearby Glen Rose (he won that with Jacky Stephenson).
"He let us stay there and rope with him," VonAhn remembers appreciatively. "We lucked out. We stayed nearly a month, then headed back to Iowa."
Sartain and VonAhn are clearly connected-and grounded. "We're the biggest team roping fans in the world," Sartain said. "I can recite you every Jake and Clay tape from the start. I grew up watching NFR tapes. I can't believe that two guys-the best of friends-could sit down, draw this out and have it happen. How cool is that? It's the coolest thing in the world. We respect each other and shoot each other straight. We're a team. And it's not just Kollin and I, it's our family and friends too. A lot of people have come together to make all this happen."
"Roping with Nick is awesome," added VonAhn. "He's the greatest partner a guy could ever have. It doesn't matter what you draw when you rope with this guy. We're both for each other. We understand it's a team event. I'm his biggest fan.
"I grew up in Iowa and hadn't ever seen any of these people in real life. To be out here bumping heads with guys like Clay (O'Brien Cooper), Rich (Skelton), Patrick (Smith) and Jade (Corkill)-and to find out they're not just great ropers, but great people too-is a dream come true."