Emotion poured from the seats of the Casper Events Center and into the dirt arena below, where Trey Yates and Kellan Johnson made their victory lap with watery eyes.
Yates’ face grew increasingly red, nearly matching the hue of his Casper College Thunderbirds vest. Johnson pumped his cowboy hat and screamed at the hollering crowd of his “hometown rodeo.”
The two Wyoming representatives — Johnson is from Casper and rodeos for Gillette College — had a 5.2-second run in Saturday’s short go-round of the 2018 College National Finals Rodeo to move into first in the aggregate. Then they watched the leaders for the past three days — Central Arizona College’s Clay Elkington and Cole Sherwood — miss the heel cast for a no-time. Yates and Johnson returned to the arena dirt and a standing ovation as national champions.
“We were just excited,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly how we were, we were just showing our emotions.”
Becoming champions was something they dreamed about when they started roping together five years ago. Back then they were just friends, Johnson about to start at Natrona County High School and Yates from Pueblo, Colorado. They developed a friendship since that brought chemistry into the arena.
“The chemistry involved, people forget, it’s very key,” Johnson said. “And the chemistry me and Trey have, it works. And it worked here this week.”
Added Yates: “We’ve been good friends and we’ve roped a lot and had a lot of success together. And besides that we’re friends outside the arena and that’s real special.”
The championship finish was the only fitting way to end their first collegiate rodeo season together. The two entered the season with the goal of being national champions. Then they won the season-opening Central Rocky Mountain Region rodeo before winning the regional title. That gave them the confidence they needed coming into the CNFR.
Their opening run of 11.4 seconds did not inspire, however. The calf veered left almost immediately out of the chute. Johnson headed it off before it got to the railings but Yates, who covered a lot of ground on the run, tossed his rope low and only caught one leg. That put them in 13th after the first go-round last Monday.
They made up ground with a more clinical run in Tuesday’s second go with a 7.1. By that point only 13 teams had successfully roped two head, moving Yates and Johnson further up the aggregate. Then came the 6.3 they netted in their third go-round.
“We had a little tough luck in the first round. I tossed low,” Yates said after the third go. “But we’ve made two good runs since and we’ve put ourselves in position to do something.”
Only five teams had successfully roped three head coming into the short go, so the duo remained in contention. However, that 11.4 in the first go put them trailing Elkington and Sherwood by 5.5 seconds going into the final night.
“We were behind far enough that we just had to make a good run and see what happened,” Yates said. “We couldn’t put pressure on any teams. All we could do is what we could do and see what happened after that.”
Johnson has headed for years, either with his father — Casper College coach Jhett Johnson, a world champion heeler — or younger brother Carson or Yates. His plan was to start the run as consistently as he could. It needed to feel like just another go-round.
“Get him headed off and let the No. 14 man in the world do his work,” Johnson said.
Yates got around and hooked without trouble. The crowd immediately knew that run kept them in contention.
Elkington and Sherwood hadn’t miss a beat all week, with their slowest time all week a 6.8. That is, until their calf hurdled the heel cast and the two gained a no-time in the short go. In that moment Johnson and Yates became champions.
Johnson, who grew up outside Casper, considers the CNFR his hometown rodeo. He received numerous text messages throughout the week leading up to Saturday’s run wishing him good luck. Yates has welcomed Casper in his time as a T-Bird and felt blessed to contribute to their history.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Yates said. “To represent Casper College, I hope I did a good job inside and outside the arena.”
Added Johnson: “To do as good as we did, it’s the biggest thing for us. It’s the national finals for us and we definitely worked our asses off to do this.”