ALVA, Okla. – While he’s experienced the College National Finals Rodeo before, it’s never something Bridger Anderson takes for granted.
The last time he played on this stage two seasons ago, Anderson walked away with the coveted steer wrestling national championship. He was just a sophomore then, and it was the last time the college finals took place.
After taking a year off because of COVID-19, intercollegiate rodeo’s championship event returns Sunday, June 13-Saturday, June 19, at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper, Wyoming.
“I’m excited for this,” said Anderson, a senior from Carrington, North Dakota. “I wanted to go back last year, but it wasn’t in the cards because of COVID. Now we’re fired up and ready to head back and try to win another title. I’m excited to have my teammate, Riley Westhaver, and coach Stockton Graves with me. Hopefully between Riley and I, we can bring back another title to Northwestern.
“Yes, I’m a two-year defending national champion with one title,” he said with a laugh. “We’re happy to have another chance to go back to the college finals. We’re hoping to have a lot of fun and make the most of our last year at the college finals.”
In his four seasons at Northwestern, Anderson has qualified for the college finals three times – each year in which he was able. No matter what happens from this point forward, he’ll focus his attention on his future. With a degree in hand, he has his eyes set on ProRodeo, where he was a National Finals Rodeo qualifier in 2020.
On the other end of the spectrum is Westhaver, who moved to Alva from High River, Alberta, six years ago to gain an education and to work on his rodeo career. Now a graduate student, he has earned his first trip to the CNFR by winning the always-tough Central Plains Region, edging out Anderson for the regional crown.
“I feel like it’s been a lot of work, and it’s finally coming to a head,” Westhaver said. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time down here, and I’m finally getting to piece things together.”
The format at the college finals is simple, yet still rugged. Each man will compete in three go-rounds, and the top 12 bulldoggers in the three-run aggregate will advance to the championship round on the final night of the CNFR. Points are gathered by finishing atop the standings in each go-round, but the national champion will be earned by the man with the best four-run cumulative time.
That’s how Anderson won the national title two seasons ago, and that’s what former Ranger bulldogger J.D. Struxness did in 2016. That season, another Northwestern cowboy, Jacob Edler, finished second to Struxness in the steer wrestling national standings, and the Rangers finished second in the final team standings.
“I’m super pumped for ‘Canada,’ ” Anderson said, referring to his nickname for Westhaver. “He won the region, and I’m really happy for him. Yes, I had a goal of winning the region, but we’re teammates and buddies. We push each other to get better every day. If I didn’t win the region, then I’m glad it was Canada.
“I’m excited to have him coming with me and being part of the college finals. I think between the two of us, we’ve got a good chance to have a lot of luck out there.”
The Rangers are coming off one of the toughest Central Plains Region seasons to date. Instead of splitting the course of 10 rodeos over an entire school year. The campaign was packed into nine straight weeks of rodeo because of the pandemic’s restrictions. The first rodeo of the season, at Kansas State University, was canceled, and there was not much time off through the spring semester to adjust from one rodeo to the next.
Fortunately, Westhaver and Anderson excelled, finishing first and second in the region respectively.
“Winning the region is a heck of a step, and I’m just really confident in what I ride and with the people around me that help me have that confidence,” Westhaver said, noting that he will ride Anderson’s horse, Whiskers, just as he’s done this season and expects to do during the ProRodeo season. “I think it’s the people around me that push me that give me the most confidence.”
Yes, that includes Anderson, but it also includes Graves, a seven-time NFR qualifier and a former Northwestern standout, and Edler, the reigning world champion bulldogger. That foursome will travel together before and after the college finals.
“I’m really excited to get out there and be among that atmosphere and be in that moment,” Westhaver said. “I feel like I’m mounted pretty good, and I have a lot of confidence in the horse. Now we just need to go out there and do our jobs.”
Whiskers not only guided Anderson to the national title two seasons ago but also helped him advance to the NFR last season. The talented gelding has been in the right place at the right time for both Anderson and Westhaver through the Central Plains season.
“Riley and I were fortunate to have a good year in the region,” Anderson said. “It was a tough year with nine rodeos in a row, but we got through the semester, and we got all our school work done. We’re excited to represent Northwestern and our rodeo team on a national level.”