Cooper Thatcher was an Australian in Canada last year when he ran into Jake Finley. Finley had just won the 2018 College National Finals Rodeo saddle bronc championship competing for Panhandle State and he had some advice for Thatcher.
“He told me I should come to Panhandle State,” Thatcher said. “I said, ‘Hell, let’s go!’”
Sunday, Thatcher put himself in position to repeat Finley’s saddle bronc title, winning the first go-round with an 82-point ride on Frontier Rodeo’s Golden Girls. That was four points clear of Clarendon College’s Riggin Smith. Panhandle State teammate Dawson Dahm, last year’s reserve champion, and Panola College’s Logan Cook tied for third with 76.5-point rides.
For Thatcher, who is competing in his first CNFR, Sunday’s ride was all about just doing his job.
“I was big-time nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know much about that horse so I just tried to get him spurred and roll with the punches. I just felt really good when I hit the ground.”
He had to feel even better when he saw his score.
Smith, who had taken the lead with his 78 just before Thatcher’s ride, also admitted to being nervous, but calmed his nerves with his ride.
“I just had to stay calm and treat this like another rodeo,” he said. “I knew that horse was a good one so I just had to do my job. I just go out there and do what everybody tells me to. And now I’ve got another day to get wound up again.”
Casper College’s Garrett Buckley finished eighth with a 72-point ride on Vold Rodeo Company’s Spunky Sam.
Unlike Thatcher, Buckley knew all about his horse.
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“That horse is from Steamboat (Colorado), which is about 45 minutes from where I live,” Smith said. “So I called some buddies of mine and they sent me some videos of him.
“It wasn’t a great ride, but it will work for the first round. I just remembered what my dad told me: ‘Be idle in the chute, but when you nod your head it’s full go.’”
Casper College teammate Lane Schuelke, tied for 12th in the first go with a 70 on Frontier Rodeo’s Border Line.
“It was mediocre at best,” Schuelke said of his ride. “But last year I didn’t do any good so I’m already on a better track this year.”
So are the Thunderbirds.
Along with Buckley and Schuelke, bareback bronc rider Cole Reiner and bull rider K’s Thomson also had successful rides Sunday.
“We’ve been firing on all cylinders,” Buckley said of his roughstock teammates. “We just feed off of each other.”
All four cowboys competed Sunday with head coach Jhett Johnson’s advice for the day fresh in their minds.
“He told us we can’t win the CNFR today,” Buckley said. “We just had to ride one horse and one day and we can win the rodeo next Saturday.”