Back in 2010, the Casper College men’s rodeo team was an afterthought on the national scene.
A program that had won four national titles in the 1960s under the late Dale Stiles hadn’t had a men’s team qualify for the season-ending College National Finals Rodeo in more than 20 years.
That changed in 2011 when the Thunderbirds won the Central Rocky Mountain Region team title and went on to finish seventh at the CNFR. These days, the T-Birds are a fixture at the college finals. Today, they’ll make their fourth trip in five years to the sport’s showcase event after once again winning the region title.
“We’ve had a few kids at the college finals every year I’ve been coaching,” said longtime Casper College coach Tom Parker, “but it’s always nice to have a full team here because it gives you a better chance at going for that national championship. And this year, we’ve got a full team plus two on the men’s side.”
The CNFR starts today at the Casper Events Center with Bulls, Broncs and Breakaway and continues through June 20 with the championship round.
The T-Birds bring a strong contingent to the Events Center, with two regional champs and three other cowboys who were reserve champs in their respective events. They were fifth in the region after four fall rodeos, but won two of the final four spring rodeos to overtake Gillette College for the team title.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see this team have success,” Casper College athletic director Bill Landen said. “I didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the year, but these guys have worked hard to get to where they are.”
The same could be said of Parker and assistant coach Jhett Johnson. The two work tirelessly during the season hauling livestock back and forth to the team’s practice arena at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds.
For Parker, seeing that hard work pay off with another trip to the CNFR makes it all worthwhile.
“Twenty-some years ago they hired me to get a team back to the finals,” he said. “Early on, we had three girls teams qualify, but then it got to where we had just two or three individuals qualifying every year. We always had somebody here, but it was never a full team.”
Obviously, that has changed in recent years. And the T-Birds are doing it in what is arguably one of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s toughest regions.
Men’s teams from the Central Rocky Mountain Region have produced eight top-10 finishes and sent 48 cowboys to the CNFR short go-round over the past five years.
“This is probably one of the strongest regions as far as competition is concerned,” Parker said. “If you can finish in the top three in this region, then you’ve done something. Not to take anything away from the other regions, but for us to make it back here on a consistent basis is pretty impressive.”
This year, the T-Birds did it with a relatively new roster. Senior Neil Williams III (Casper) is the only T-Bird with CNFR experience, while junior Dantan Bertsch and sophomore Drew Antone (Kinnear) are the only CNFR qualifiers who competed for Casper College last year.
“These guys are very self-driven,” said Williams, a four-time CNFR qualifier who will compete in both bareback bronc riding and bull riding this week. “This is one of the hardest-working teams I’ve been on.
“I might be the veteran on this team, but I don’t have to babysit these guys to know that they’ll be ready.”
The T-Birds scored the majority of their points this season on the roughstock end of the arena. Cawl Braithwaite, Antone and Williams claimed the top three spots in bull riding and Bertsch, Dylan Wahlert and Williams finished first, second and fourth, respectively in bareback bronc riding. Throw in saddle bronc rider Justin Harrell, who finished second in the region, and the bucking chutes will be teeming with Casper College’s familiar red vests this week.
Steer wrestler Jake Fulton and team roper Joby Barquin (Kinnear), along with breakaway roper Lacey Camp, Casper College’s lone female qualifier, will represent the T-Birds at the timed events end of the arena.
With seven qualifiers on the men’s side -- Barquin, who finished fourth in the team roping heeling standings, will rope with Gillette College three-event qualifier Casey Sellers -- Parker and Johnson had to decide which six would be on the point-scoring team for Casper College.
“In the past, it was pretty cut and dried who was going to be on the team,” Parker said. “This year, it’s a little more difficult, but it’s an awesome problem to have. I wish I had that problem every year.”
Antone drew the short straw this week. Even though they’re not on the point-scoring team, the goal for Antone and Barquin is the same as it is for every other competitor at the Events Center.
“The things is, they’re all here and they’re here for one purpose and that’s to win a national title,” Parker said. “Whether they’re on the team or not, if they win a national title, that’s a feather in the cap for Casper College.”
While Williams is the only T-Bird with CNFR experience, Parker doesn’t think his team will have a problem performing in the spotlight. After all, Bertsch won the Novice Bareback Riding competition at the Canadian Finals in November and both Antone and Barquin have competed at the Indian National Finals.
“The others might not have college finals experience, but they are all very capable of doing some things here,” Parker said. “It will be a different feeling if they make it back for the finals on Saturday in front of a packed house. But I’ve got all the confidence in the world in this bunch.”
At the end of this month, Landen is retiring after 30 years on the job at Casper College. During his tenure, the T-Birds have made numerous trips to the National Junior College Athletic Association championships in volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball. Now he can add the men’s rodeo team to that list.
“I’m just really proud of Tom because I know he worked hard to get the program to this level,” Landen said. “The first team back in 2011 kind of set the bar, but now it’s expected that we’ll be in the hunt every year. Tom and Jhett have helped make this one of the premier programs in the nation.”
With that success, however, comes expectations. So far the T-Birds have been up to the challenge, and Parker expects it to continue.
“The first time we had a men’s team here you could feel the momentum starting to build,” he said. “And now we’ve got kids who are interested in our program, so we just hope that momentum keeps building.
“We’re always going to lose some kids to graduation, but I think we’ll be OK.”