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The Casper College men’s rodeo team is making a habit of late-season heroics. For the second year in a row, the Thunderbirds entered the final rodeo of the Central Rocky Mountain Region – the Laramie River Rendezvous – on the outside looking in.

The University of Wyoming had already clinched the regional title and one of the region’s berths in the College National Finals Rodeo. But Casper College had to vault Gillette College, Sheridan College and Chadron State College if it wanted to secure the region’s runner-up finish.

And, for the second consecutive year, the T-Birds did just that. They scored a season-high 770 points to win the Laramie River Rendezvous and, in the process, finish 227 points ahead of Gillette College for the No. 2 spot in the final regional standings.

“When we got to Laramie nobody tried to do more than they could do,” Casper College rodeo coach Jhett Johnson said. “They just did the best they could do with what they drew.”

The T-Birds’ best proved to be more than enough.

Lane Schuelke won the saddle bronc riding, Cole Reiner won the bareback bronc riding and team ropers Wheaton Williams and Cash Hetzel and bull rider K’s Thomson finished second. In addition, Jerren Johnson teamed up with Gillette College’s Kellan Johnson, his cousin, to place fourth in team roping and Garrett Buckley was fifth in saddle bronc.

All but Williams, who is ineligible, will compete for the T-Birds at the CNFR, which begins Sunday at the Casper Events Center. With Williams out, Hetzel will rope with Kellan Johnson, who finished fourth in the heading standings but was bumped up to No. 3. Last year, Kellan Johnson won the national championship roping with Casper College’s Trey Yates.

So while Jhett Johnson is glad to see his son back at the college finals, he’s obviously disappointed not to have Williams there representing the T-Birds.

“I just hate it for Wheaton because he was No. 1 in the region and now he’s going to miss the finals,” he said.

That opened a spot not only for Kellan Johnson, but for Thomson as well.

Thomson, Schuelke and Reiner all qualified for the CNFR last year while riding for Sheridan College. They competed for the Generals to begin the season, but transferred to Casper College for the spring semester.

Not surprisingly, their arrival jump-started the T-Birds. After not scoring a point in the season-opening rodeo and finishing better than sixth only once – they won the Lamar Community College Rodeo – in five fall rodeos, the T-Birds finished in the top three in all five spring rodeos.

“I’m not the only one here with a good team,” Jhett Johnson said, “but I have high expectations for us and so do the guys who qualified. I don’t want to sound like Babe Ruth and call my shot, but I think we’ll do good. It takes a little bit of luck to win the deal, but I sure expect us to be in the running.”

Even if the T-Birds wouldn’t have finished second in the region, Schuelke (No. 1 in saddle bronc), Reiner (No. 2 in bareback) and Hetzel (No. 3 in heeling) would be representing the red-vested T-Birds at the CNFR. But the runner-up finish adds Jerren Johnson, Thomson and Buckley to the mix. All but Buckley and Hetzel were at the CNFR last year. More importantly, all have had success throughout their rodeo careers.

“I have a team right now that is used to competing, and not just in college,” Jhett Johnson said. “These guys have competed at amateur rodeos, pro rodeos and college rodeos. And that gives you a chance.

“I’ve got a whole team of competitors. Not that they won’t be nervous at the college finals, but it will be a little bit more of just a rodeo to them. I know from personal experience that when you’re busy rodeoing and you stop at another one it is just another rodeo. But if you’re not rodeoing right now and you get to the college finals it’s everything.”

Thankfully, the Casper College coach and former world champion team roper doesn’t need to worry about any of his cowboys being rusty.

Since the CRMR season ended on April 28, all of the T-Birds have been competing on the professional circuit. Jerren Johnson and team roping partner Cody Tew are in position to win money at a number of rodeos in Canada; Hetzel recently won an open roping in Rapid City, South Dakota; and all four roughstock competitors have been in the mix at numerous rodeos.

This marks the sixth time in the past eight years the T-Birds will be at the college finals. And Jhett Johnson believes that trend will continue.

“I’m excited about next year and I’m just excited about the direction of the program,” he said. “I like the team we have this year and I like the team we’ve recruited coming in next year.

“It’s exciting to me because I’ve always liked being a contender. I don’t like floating around and going, ‘Oh, we’re OK.’ I want to be good. I’m not saying we’re going to be the national champs, but I think we have a chance.”

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Sports Editor

Jack Nowlin returned to the Star-Tribune in 2007 after eight years covering Michigan State University athletics. A Wyoming native, and a graduate of Jeffrey City High School and the University of Wyoming, Jack serves as the Star-Tribune’s sports editor.

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