Saturday’s short go-round of the Wyoming State High School Finals Rodeo at Cam-plex capped off a week of heavy competition between the state’s top high school riders, tiers, ropers, and shooters in Gillette.
After the final bull run was through, the national qualifiers out of Wyoming had all been decided, and Campbell County will be well-represented with 13 cowboys and cowgirls on their way to Rock Springs to take on the nation’s best in July at the National High School Finals Rodeo.
Gillette’s Shay Hough, who recently graduated, her final state championship rodeo with a fourth consecutive state title in pole bending. She also repeated with a win in barrel racing, giving her six individual state titles for her high school career with her horse “Tex,” which she called a one-in-a-million rodeo horse.
“You won’t find horses like him very often,” said Hough, also a former NHSFR all-around cowgirl champ. “I just got really lucky with him.”
Hough won the all-around as a sophomore, and now has one more shot at another.
“I just got to get out of my head,” Hough said about not thinking of where she is in the standings. “When I do that, then I just end up thinking about knocking (a pole) instead of just making a good run.”
Three of the four pole bending national qualifiers are from Gillette as senior Madison Wolff and sophomore Halle Hladky will join Hough at nationals.
In the only team event of the rodeo, Kolby Bradley and Arye Espenscheid of Big Piney won team roping and qualified for nationals again after taking third place in state last season.
The winner of the event was decided on the final run as the team was tied in points with the duo of Coy Johnson of Buffalo and Arye’s brother Jade.
Bradley roped the head of the calf right away and Espenscheid’s shot snagged both legs to give the team a lightning quick 5.83-second time in the qualifying round.
“I just wanted to beat my brother,” Arye said. “He was sitting first all year and talking a bunch of crap, so I wanted to beat him.”
Bradley said he and Arye live next to each other and practice every day. They play basketball together as well. He’s a point guard while Arye is a shooting guard, and he compared the duo’s roles in rodeo to what they do on the basketball court.
“Header’s kind of like the quarterback in football. It’s where the run starts. You got to score and then rope them and handle them good for the heeler,” Bradley said.
Kemmerer senior Donny Proffit, who won four state wrestling titles, won bareback riding and narrowly took home the title of all-around cowboy. He plans to compete in rodeo and wrestle at the University of Wyoming, though he said he is going to redshirt his freshman year of wrestling.
Cameron Henson of Gillette couldn’t hang on when his ride came in the short go-round, but he still qualified for nationals with a fourth-place finish.
During bareback riding, Wheatland’s Drake Amundson got his hand rigging stuck and the horse dragged him around Morningside Arena for a bit. He lay on the dirt while his score of 64 was announced before medical staff helped him up. He walked off on his own after a few minutes.
“It’s scary, but I mean it happens. It’s rodeo. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Proffit said about the potential for injury. “We know that going into the game.”
The only other close call Saturday happened during steer wrestling when Gillette’s Skyler Lubkeman tried to tackle a steer near the fence, missed the mark and hit the fence at high speed. He walked off after being looked at briefly by medical staff as well.
In boys cutting, Hunter and Joseph Hayden will represent Gillette at the NHSFR in Rock Springs after the brothers finished in the top four. Hunter, the older of the pair and a junior at Thunder Basin High School, has been to the finals twice before, while this will be his brother’s first time. Joseph is a freshman.
“I’m probably just going to tell him, ‘Just go make the runs you’ve made all year. Just do the best you can,’” Hunter said. “You just got to do what you can.”
Other Gillette national qualifiers are Parker Manor, second in saddle bronc riding; Kaden Berger, fourth in steer wrestling; Stratton Kohr and Peityn Manor in the light rifle; and Kolton Miller in trap shooting. Kagen King qualified with the second spot in steer wrestling.
The all-around cowgirl was freshman Haiden Thompson from Yoder, who narrowly edged out senior Ellie Bard of Sheridan.