CASPER, Wyo. – Northwestern Oklahoma State University has finally crowned its first national champion in rodeo.
Steer wrestler J.D. Struxness wrestled four steers in a cumulative time of 18.1 seconds to better the best field of bulldoggers in the country, claiming that elusive title during the weeklong College National Finals Rodeo in Casper.
“It was a great week,” said Struxness of Appleton, Minn., who edged the reserve champion, teammate Jacob Eldred of State Center, Iowa, by one second. “It was a great confidence booster when you can win something like that.
“Jacob and I went in and expected to win first and second. They gave us the steers to do it on, and we just did our jobs.”
They weren’t the only ones. The Rangers men finished the finale as the men’s reserve champions, just 200 points behind the titlists, Feather River (Calif.) College. Northwestern finished with 800 points, with Struxness and Edler contributing the most; they were helped by teammates Bryson Sechrist of Apache, Okla., who placed fourth in tie-down roping, while bareback rider Austin Graham of Jay, Okla., finished 13th.
“It was a fun week, and those guys and girls were doing well every day,” said coach Stockton Graves, a Northwestern alumnus and recognized as one of the top steer wrestlers in professional rodeo over the past 20 years. “By finishing second, it’s our best finish ever. I really think it’s huge for us. We were in contention to win a national title. That’s all you can ask for. They competed well, and we just missed it.
“I wanted to get our first national championship ever, and we had three great chances and an outside chance with Shayna,” he said, referring to senior goat-tier Shayna Miller of Faith, S.D., who finished 12th. “I am just proud as punch of all those kids.”
Eight Northwestern athletes earned the right to compete at the college finals. Of those, four did well enough to earn a spot in the championship go-round, which features only the top 12 contestants in each event. Two others, Graham in bareback riding and goat-tier Laremi Allred of Kanaraville, Utah, placed 13th, just missing out on the short round.
“At one time, we had a very good chance of having seven out of eight kids in the short-go,” Graves said. “We just missed it. They all competed well.”
A third goat-tier, Tearnee Nelson of Faith, finished in a tie for 16th, completing three solid runs. The women finished among the top 20 in the final standings.
But the week belonged to Struxness and Edler. Riding Edler’s team of horses, the tandem put on a showcase in Casper. They ran their first three steers on consecutive days – Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and sat atop the leaderboard through the remaining week.
Struxness finished runner-up in the second round and won the third round to own a solid lead heading into the short go-round, trailed only by Edler, who was just seven-10ths of a second behind.
The tandem added an exclamation point on Championship Saturday by finishing first and second; Struxness was 4.2, and Edler was 4.5. In fact, Edler’s runner-up final tally was 4.5 seconds ahead of the No. 3 bulldogger in the standings.
“The goal J.D. and I had was to win first and second in the nation, and we didn’t care who it was,” Edler said. “We knew we were rodeoing together, just like we will be all summer. Our goal is to win first and second at every rodeo we go to.”
That’s a true team concept that has worked well for the Rangers all season. The women won the Central Plains Region title and earned the right to take all four cowgirls to Casper. The men finished third – only the top two teams in each region can take a full team of six cowboys – but still had four cowboys perform solidly at the college finals.
“This just gives us momentum to springboard from,” Graves said. “Now we know we can do it. Now that we’ve done that, especially with just four guys, it’s a huge showing for us. I’m proud of Northwestern, and I’m proud of how well all these guys and girls competed.”
It also shows the kind of ability that the Rangers possess.
“That’s great for us as a team,” Struxness said. “We sent four very talented individuals; three of us made the short round, and the fourth didn’t quite get the horses he needed to show off his riding skills. We knew going out there with the four guys we had that we had a chance to do well. It showed how much talent we had as a team, even though we didn’t win the region.
“Stockton has changed the program around and has it headed in the right way.”
The proof of that happened in Casper the middle of June, but the results at the college finals are a tip of the cap to the type of work ethic it takes to make a run at championships.
“Stockton is going to help a guy as much as a guy is willing to help himself,” Edler said. “He’s going to give you all the tools and resources he has to help you.”
All those tools help, but the success takes place with each individual performing to the best of his or her ability.
“I broke down the numbers this year, and we had 19 to 25 kids make the short round every weekend,” Graves said. “They were used to being in the short round and winning, and I think that gave them all the confidence to do well at the college finals.”