Five years ago, Wheaton Williams’ team roping almost ended before it really started. Fortunately for the Casper College men’s rodeo team that didn’t happen.
Williams and team roping partner Jerren Johnson, both freshmen for the Thunderbirds, enter this weekend’s Ropin’ and Riggin’ Days Rodeo second in the Central Rocky Mountain Region standings and in the Top 15 in the national standings.
“I wasn’t going to rodeo in junior high,” Williams said, “but my dad got a hold of (Johnson’s) dad and said (Jerren) needed a partner. We started from there and have been roping ever since.”
Williams, from Big Horn, and Johnson, who lives outside of Casper, were three-time qualifiers to the National High School Finals Rodeo and won the first go-round last year. Their success has continued at the college level as they’ve finished in the Top Four in four of eight regional rodeos.
“Those two had a heck of a track record and it carried right into college,” Casper College coach Jhett Johnson, who is also Jerren’s uncle, said.
Williams and Johnson come into this weekend’s rodeo in The Arena at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds with 540 points on the season, 300 points back of Gillette College’s Kellan Johnson, Jerren’s cousin, and Casper College teammate Trey Yates.
“Actually, I think we could have done better,” said Johnson, who heels for Williams. “We’ve had some slip-ups on both ends throughout the year.
“We understood the competition and I always knew that he roped good and I thought we would be a good team. And as our roping has grown we’ve become better as a unit.”
If Williams and Johnson remain in the top three in the region following next week’s Laramie River Rendezvous they’ll punch their ticket to the season-ending College National Finals Rodeo at the Casper Events Center in June.
“I’ve been there every year watching so it will be exciting to go for once and actually be in it,” Johnson said. “I’m excited.
“We’re freshmen coming in here and doing pretty well so to make the CNFR our first year would be great. It would help our confidence for the next couple years.”
While Johnson had no doubt he would be attending Casper College – Jhett Johnson was the T-Birds’ assistant coach for four years before taking over last spring when longtime coach Tom Parker died after a months-long battle with cancer – Williams initially looked at going to school elsewhere.
“Wheaton was looking at going to Arizona,” Jhett Johnson said. “But then he called me and asked if he could get some scholarship money if he came here. I told him we could definitely do that, and it’s worked out.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Williams now has a chance to learn from one of the best. Jhett Johnson is a five-time qualifier to the National Finals Rodeo as a heeler and teamed with Turtle Powell to win the 2011 world title.
“Jhett has been a huge help,” Williams said. “My good head horse was wanting to leave (the box) a little early and Jhett helped me get him out of that. He’s always there with us in the box, telling us what to do. He’s just a great coach.”
Added Jerren: “As a coach he’s awesome. And having him as an uncle just makes it that much easier. He’s been through it all. Especially since I heel, and that’s what he did, there’s nobody better to learn from than someone who has done it all.”
Under Parker, Casper College often had some of the best bronc riders in the region. And while the T-Birds currently have Zach Thomas sitting sixth in bareback and J.W. Meiers (Mills) eighth in saddle bronc, Jhett Johnson knows where the strength of this year’s team lies.
“I had a great opportunity to recruit some team ropers and they wanted to come here because they knew that’s what I did,” he said. “Ultimately, my knowledge of team roping is so deep that if you’re a team roper and you wanted to go somewhere this is a good spot.
“This next year I’ve recruited some good roughstock kids, and we’ve got more timed-event guys coming. But the team ropers have kind of led the way for us this year.”