Forced to stay in the pen for much longer than usual, Loni Lester waited.
The breakaway roper from Sam Houston State, and more importantly her horse, stayed patient while waiting for the signal from the officials ready to release the calf and start her short go-round on Saturday night at the College National Finals Rodeo at Casper Events Center.
“I just sat there the whole time thinking exactly what I was going to see,” Lester said. “My horse was scoring good, he was being calm, I was being calm. I think it all worked out.”
Lester burst out of the gate and roped the calf in 2.7 seconds, the same time as her first and second goes, and held on to win the national championship with a four-run time of 10.9 seconds.
Lester surpassed Southern Arkansas’ Hannah Springer in the short as Springer got out of the gates in good time but was late to roping her calf.
Reid Zapalac’s top time going into Saturday’s short go wasn’t safe with returning tie-down and all-around champion Marcus Theriot lingering in second.
So the roper from Tarleton State went out with a distinct mindset.
“Man, when I found out that I made the short round I knew I couldn’t back off,” Zapalac said. “I needed to go at him, make a good run.”
Zapalac had an 8.8 to win the national championship with an aggregate time of 36.7 and then threw his rope into the crowd in celebration. He was able to breathe easier after confusion marred Theriot’s go.
Theriot’s calf was released out of the chute as Theriot and his horse were turning in the box and the judges ruled that the sophomore indeed nodded to signal he was ready. The video board replay brought almost universal disagreement from the crowd.
In a section marred by uncharacteristic slower times and trips, Eastern New Mexico’s Tawny Barry even surprised herself with her short go.
“I didn’t think I was as fast as I was,” she said. “I mean, 6.4 is a good time and whatnot, but I didn’t think that I was that fast.”
Barry’s 6.4 in the final go gave her a slight advantage and she held on with an average of 26.1 to hold off Wyoming’s Amelia Anderson’s 26.3 to win the national title.
The three-way tie at the top entering Saturday shook out as Gillette College’s Rickie Engesser had her worst go with a 7.1 to give her a 26.5 and third place. Idaho State’s Makayla Boots also had her worst go with a 7.4 to bring her average to 26.8, tying her for fourth while Katie Rice of Cal Poly struggled mightily and stumbled to an 11.4, finishing 11th with a 30.8.
With the lead entering Saturday, Denver Berry wasn’t about to take his foot off the gas.
“That’s kind of been our mantra,” he said. “’Don’t go out there trying not to lose, go out there trying to win.’ And I got a little better start than even I thought I did and it all worked out.”
Berry tied Nebraska’s Reed Kraeger, who finished second in the average, with the fastest time of the round with a 3.9 to finish with a national championship-winning average of 19.8.
It was a fluid go that brought home a championship for the Southeast Oklahoma State senior as his father, rodeo hall of famer Ote Berry, was on-hand to see and help celebrate.
Smooth around each barrel, Hailey Kinsel of Texas A&M got a good reception from the Events Center crowd as she and her horse crossed the finish line.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she would do a lot more than just win the short go.
Kinsel’s time of 14.06 was the best of the go, second-best of the entire CNFR, to give her a four-run time of 57.89 seconds to win the national championship.
“It’s pretty exciting,” she said. “I didn’t expect it. There were a lot of tough horses and I was just going to go make the best run I could.”
Her time was just good enough to edge out the leader going into Saturday, UNLV’s Leia Pluemer’s 57.92. Wyoming’s Kailee Webb finished third with a 57.95.
Cole Wheeler and Wesley Thorp enjoyed their buckles and saddles so much from last year that they decided they’d just as well grab another set while they were back in Casper.
The Texas Tech tandem finished the short go with a 5.9 to win their second straight national championship with an average of 25.2.
“That last one was not supposed to be good at all,” Thorp said of their steer. “I wasn’t nervous through the week but before we had to run that steer I was nervous because I was scared he was going to stop.”