Been there, done that.
The Tarleton State University men’s rodeo team is a perennial power. The program has notched three national team titles and is a fixture at the College National Finals Rodeo.
The men will be in Casper, Wyo., again this year, but that didn’t look like a sure thing at the midpoint of the 2018-19 season.
“We had a weird year,” said tie-down roper Wyatt Williams, who’s preparing for his third appearance at CNFR. “A bunch of us were hitting and missing at different spots. Everyone ruled us out halfway through the year.
“This spring we finally caught fire and won three rodeos as a team. We came back at the end of the year. It was cool to be the underdog for once, to come back like that.”
Defending national champion bareback rider Tyler Berghuis said the late-season rally could galvanize the team at CNFR. “With all the pressure, we were able to come back and qualify, so I think we can handle the pressure of the college finals.”
The seven-man team, led by Berghuis, includes Williams, saddle bronc rider Jake Barnes, calf roper Haven Meged, team roping header Jhett Trenary, heeler Zach Kraus and steer wrestler Tyler Muth.
The team carries a load of experience into Casper for the June 9-15 finals, listing seven previous appearances. Performances will be telecast live from the Casper Events Center on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.
Berghuis, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Southwest Region bareback champ, is in Casper for the second straight year, his last season of college eligibility.
“At first there was a little pressure, because I had to live up to that standard,” he said. “I came to realize that I needed to redirect that pressure. I’ve already done this, and I can do it again.
“Rodeo is a mental game, and I have to be as positive as I can. I don’t have time for any negativity.”
Teammate Williams, a May graduate with a communications degree, was on Tarleton’s 2018 team that went to CNFR. “This year will be fun,” he said of his third trip to Casper. “We should have a shot at taking a team title if everyone keeps up their mojo. We should have a good week.”
Williams was the reserve champion tie-down roper in the Southwest Region, winning at the Texas Tech rodeo, taking second at West Texas A&M and Western Texas College, and adding a third at Ranger.
“I think having been there before puts me in a lot better mindset,” he said. “I know more about what I’m getting into. I’m in a pretty good place. I’ve been roping pretty good this spring.”
Fellow calf roper Meged also has experience at CNFR, having qualified for Western Oklahoma State last year before transferring to Tarleton. A self-taught roper from his days working the family’s cattle, he started roping in the eighth grade.
“My dad ran some cattle, and he’d always send me out to tag the calves. I learned how to rope by myself out there. I had some neighbors who went to rodeos. They let me go with them, and I ended up falling in love with it.”
Meged, a junior agriculture industries and agencies major from Miles City, Mont., finished the regular season in sixth place in the region, claiming first place at the Sul Ross State University rodeo and at Western Texas, where he was also the all-around winner.
He said the key to a successful week at CNFR is the same as at any rodeo — a good draw.
“It’s pretty much everything in rodeo,” he said. “If you draw a bad calf, it’s not worth the drive.”
Kraus, the heeler, not only has the pressure of CNFR to think about, he has quite a bit of family history to live up to.
“I have a world champion in my family,” he said, “an uncle who made the NFR 11 times, won the average in 1975, and a great-aunt who made the NFR a couple of times.”
On his way to qualifying for CNFR, Kraus captured third in the regional standings, including first-place finishes at Texas Tech and WTC and a third at Sul Ross.
The senior business major, making his second appearance in the finals, thinks experience intensifies things.
“I remember the first time I made it, I was just happy to be there,” he said. “This time around I’m preparing for it a little harder.”
Trenary, a team roping header, finished sixth in the Southwest, taking reserve champion honors at both Ranger and Snyder in the spring.
Muth is making his third consecutive CNFR appearance — from three different colleges. He started at Arizona, then moved on to New Mexico State before coming to Tarleton.
Last year, competing for NMSU, he had to turn out his steer after suffering an injury practicing for the College National Finals. “I burst my small intestine and spent seven days in the hospital almost exactly a year ago.”
After sitting out CNFR hurt, he moved to Tarleton, where transfer rules forced him to miss the team’s first three rodeos of the season.
When he returned, he returned strong.
“My first rodeo back from my injury I ended up winning second. It was quite a battle to get back to the finals after recovering from that injury and sitting out three rodeos. I’m coming back with a vengeance for sure.”
Muth, a senior in animal science and production, won first at Texas Tech and was reserve champion at the West Texas A&M rodeo, finishing the 2018-19 regular season tied for third in the region.
Likewise, Barnes took third in his event. The saddle bronc specialist was in the top four in four regular-season rodeos, including a second at Sul Ross and a third at the Tarleton Stampede, qualifying for his first CNFR.
The Springdale, Ark., product is a senior agriculture interdisciplinary studies major completing his first year at Tarleton.
“I could not be any happier with my decision,” he said. “We’re not just a team, we’re a family. We’re here to help each other, no matter what. A calf roper is liable to be down there helping me in the bronc riding. I might be pushing a steer in bulldogging.”
For Barnes the most enjoyable aspect of qualifying for CNFR is wearing the purple vest.
“The best part is I get to go and represent Tarleton. That’s our chance to compete against the best of the best and come home with a national championship.”