ALVA, Okla. – There is a lot of individualism in the world of rodeo; the man-vs.-beast mentality calls for it.
But college rodeo has a distinct team atmosphere, and all individual accomplishments can benefit the group. Sometimes team titles can be won or lost on a single ride or run. That’s what Stockton Graves is considering as he prepares six cowboys for the College National Finals Rodeo, set for June 10-16 in Casper, Wyo.
“Obviously it’s important to have a good showing, but I’m pretty excited to have a whole team,” Graves said, noting that the Rangers have six cowboys who have qualified for the finale: steer wrestler Kyle Irwin, tie-down roper Will Howell, saddle bronc rider Cody Burkholder, header Collin Domer and heelers Dustin Searcy and Tanner Braden.
The top two teams in each region are allowed to take six men to Casper. Northwestern finished fourth in the Central Plains Region; circuit champion Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College and runner-up Oklahoma Panhandle State University will have six competitors to count toward the team standings at the CNFR regardless of how they finished in the final region standings.
But Northwestern’s set of cowboys earned the right to be there by finishing in the top three of their respective events. Domer is the lone holdout; he finished 10th among Central Plains headers, but he gets into the competition because he’s the region’s student representative.
“I’m pretty excited about getting them qualified, because that gives us that many more opportunities to get points,” said Graves, a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier who returned to his alma mater as coach in November 2011. “I’ve got a good feeling about it. We’ve got some talented kids going. Hopefully we’ll go do well.”
Searcy, a freshman from Mooreland, Okla., and Irwin, a senior from Robertsdale, Ala., won the regional titles in their events, while Burkholder, a senior from Clarksville, Iowa, finished second in saddle bronc riding. Braden and Howell each finished third in the Central Plains.
“Alva’s been real good, and Stockton’s been real good,” said Howell, a freshman from Stillwater, Okla. “He’s been helping us out a lot, flanking and tying with us every day. He’s been a good help for the team.”
Braden, a senior from Dewey, Okla., will compete with Clay Pianalto of Bacone (Okla.) College. He likes the idea that two of the three heelers who qualified out of the Central Plains are attending Northwestern.
“It showed people that our school and our team rope pretty good,” Braden said. “It feels good to make the college finals. We went all year to try to get there, and we succeeded.”
Many of the Rangers saw success through the season. Burkholder, the only roughstock cowboy on the team, closed out a successful final season at Northwestern by winning the bronc riding title the Southwestern Oklahoma State University rodeo in Weatherford, moving up into the top three in the standings. Then at the Panhandle State rodeo in Guymon, Okla., Burkholder moved up another spot.
“This is huge,” he said of making the CNFR. “Going into Guymon, I was kind of worried I’d even make the short-go, which is what I needed to do to have a chance at going to Casper.”
He did, finishing the first round in 12th place. Once in the championship round, Burkholder fought through the pressures that accompanied the back-against-the-wall format.
“Sometimes under pressure, I’m not the greatest,” he said. “But when I’ve got something I’m going after, I tend to do what it takes. Instead of staying third, I wanted to be the reserve champ. That’s what I was going for going into that rodeo.”
Domer didn’t quite have the finish he wanted, but he doesn’t mind the automatic qualification that comes with being the region representative.
“Any way to get there is fine with me,” said Domer, who competed throughout the season with his brother, Ryan, a cowboy that will transfer from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M to Northwestern in the fall. At the CNFR, Collin Domer will rope with Cody Carlin, the fifth-ranked heeler in the Central Plains this season.
“Only the top three go, but the all-around champion girl in the region will rope with the fourth-place heeler as her extra event, and I get the fifth-place heeler. It works out pretty well, because it gives us more bullets in our gun.”
Still, it takes competing at a top level if contestants want to make a move in Casper.
“If you want to win, it takes just catching every one clean,” Braden said.
Sometimes that’s better said than done. Irwin, who finished as the runner-up at last year’s CNFR, hopes to get over the hump this June by winning the coveted title. He’s been through the battlefield before; not all the qualifiers have that experience, but they carry their own pedigree into the finale.
Howell, for example, won the national title in tie-down roping as a freshman in high school in 2008. He’s also been one of Northwestern’s hottest ropers through the spring portion of the season.
“I feel 100 percent,” he said. “I’ve already won a national title before, so I know how it is. I think it’s like a building process: high school, college pro. It’s all a stepping stone to get to the top, and I’m right there between college and the pro deal knocking on the door.”
Of course, a college championship would look pretty good on any resume.