HEBER CITY, Utah – As the 2017 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association season draws near an end and the 2018 season has officially kicked off, local talents have plenty to celebrate and be thankful for – both for successes during the season and the Super Bowl of rodeo that is fast approaching.
Within the PRCA, there are 12 separate circuits – the Wilderness Circuit serving Nevada, Utah and the bulk of Idaho.
The 2017 Wilderness Circuit Finals took place Nov. 2-4 in Heber City, Utah, capping remarkable finishes for Elko cowboy Dakota Eldridge and former Nevada talent Matt Shiozawa of Chubbock, Idaho.
Eldridge claimed the All-Around Cowboy for the year-end circuit standings, also winning the year-end crown in the steer wrestling.
Shiozawa won the average of the WCFR and took the top honor in the season standings of the tie-down roping.
Within the Wilderness Circuit, combined with other rodeos of the PRCA, Eldridge and Shiozawa have each qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
For Eldridge, the WNFR qualification is his fifth in a row.
Shiozawa’s berth on rodeo’s grandest stage has hit double digits – making his 10th trip to Sin City.
It did not take long for Eldridge to leave his mark on the Wilderness Circuit competition, formerly competing in the Columbia River Circuit (Washington, Oregon and northwestern Idaho).
He bested all comers in the Wilderness Circuit All-Around standings with a total of $40,722 in prize money from circuit rodeos, fending off runner-up Rhen Richard of Roosevelt, Utah, by $1,725.
In the steer wrestling, Eldridge had another close battle, earning the circuit championship with a total $27,407, beating Canadian Curtis Cassidy’s mark of $24,759 by $2,648.
Eldridge’s All-Around title was aided by his performance in the tie-down roping, finishing seventh in the circuit standings with a year-end amount of $13,315.
He did not have the type of finals rodeo he would have liked, but Eldridge tied for third in the first round of the tie-down roping with a time of 10.2 seconds for a $729 check.
“I was blessed to have a great year in the Wilderness Circuit that helped me to win the year-end steer wrestling and All-Around titles, qualifying me for a trip to the Ram Circuit Finals in Florida this coming April,” Eldridge said. “I am thankful for all of my family that came over to Utah and watched me compete; I had a lot of fun with all of them.”
Shiozawa, a mainstay at the WCFR, racked up what he said was his “fifth or sixth” championship in the tie-down roping.
“There have been years where I won the average but didn’t win the year-end standings, and there have been times I won the year-end title but didn’t win the average of the finals,” he said. “I probably have five or six combined titles between the year-end and average. It’s cool to win both of them in the same year.”
He closed the year-end standings with a total of $31,633 – opening a large lead of $9,890 over runner-up Richard ($21,743).
At the circuit finals, Shiozawa collected three checks.
He won $972 for third place in the second round on an 8.7-second run, shortening up with his fastest run of the rodeo with a time of 8.0 in the third and final round for a $1,459 paycheck.
His total time of 27.2 seconds on three runs provided the big money, topping the average and gaining another $2,917.
“Being from eastern Idaho, there is a pro rodeo in nearly every small town. It only takes me about three hours to get from home to the all the rodeos around Salt Lake City; there’s a rodeo in every town in that valley too,” Shiozawa said. “I’m glad Dakota has done so well. I’m sure it’s a lot harder for him to travel in this circuit. There are only a few good PRCA rodeos in Nevada, so he has a lot longer to drive than a lot of the guys. Everyone knows how well he steer wrestles, but he has turned into a good calf roper too. That guy is handy.”
Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
Eldridge, the 2015 WNFR steer wrestling average winner and runner-up for the world title, enters his fifth straight WNFR in 10th place of the Weather Guard PRCA world standings.
He has won $80,980 in the steer wrestling, one of his most notable victories of the season coming when he captured the steer wrestling and All-Around titles on June 24 at the Reno Rodeo ($10,333).
After a fast start to the season, Eldridge cooled off during the 4th of July run and tailed off toward the end of the season.
“Toward the end of the year, I was winning more in the calf roping than I was in the bull dogging,” Eldridge said. “After the circuit finals, I went down to Bernice, Louisiana, and worked on a lot of the basics with a guy named Tom Carney. We just went over the fundamentals.”
Eldridge made the return trip from Bernice on Monday, getting to practice in his home arena.
Chasing No. 1 – Ty Erickson of Helena, Montana, leads the world steer wrestling standings with an incredible regular-season total of $163,151.
Erickson’s lead on Eldridge seems like an insurmountable margin to overcome to the average eye, but rodeo athletes and fans know the WNFR can pay big.
Each of the 10 go-rounds at the WNFR pays $26,230.77; the WFNR average winner will collect a check for $67,269.23.
While virtually impossible when competing against the top-15 in the world, a cowboy can potentially win $329,576.93 in one event at the WNFR.
Eldridge will ride a tried-and-true mount at the WNFR, his 18-year-old sorrel gelding Rusty.
“Rusty is good. He always works and he’s healthy,” Eldridge said.
During the season, Eldridge progressively game more runs to his backup horse, Cruiser, saving Rusty for the big dance.
Shiozawa has finished as the runner-up for the tie-down roping world championship twice (2006, 2011), winning the average of the WNFR in 2011.
He enters his decades-worth of qualifications in ninth place in the world standings, totaling $93,363.
Three-time (2011, 2012 and 2014) world champion Tuf Cooper of Weatherford, Texas, is currently first in the world with $190,444 in winnings during the regular season.
“I rode Gray Pony (gelding) at the circuit finals. He is working really well and I think he’s my No. 1 for the NFR,” Shiozawa said. “Plan ‘B’ will be my bay mare Alotta.”
Minden native Wyatt Denny knocked down his second WNFR qualification in as many years, entering the 2017 finals in a much better position.
He snuck into his first WNFR on Sept. 30, 2016, stealing the 15th and final position on the last day of the regular season.
Jump 10 spots.
This time around, Denny finds himself in fifth place in the world standings with a total of $109,353.
The most noteworthy fact of Denny’s season is that he won nearly half of his yearly total at one rodeo.
On July 24, Denny captured first place in the Gold Medal round of the Days of ’47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City, scratching the spurs to the horse Diamond Hope for 88 points and a $50,000 payday.
Defending world champion Tim O’Connell of Zwingle, Iowa, has shown no signs of a defending-season hangover – blasting out to a huge lead with $201,915 in earnings during the regular season.
Don’t look back.
The top half of the pack in the team roping better not let off the gas, or they may catch a glimpse of someone coming up quickly in the rear view mirror.
Fallon heeler Jade Corkill’s ninth WNFR qualification was probably his most trying and stressful of all, including dating back to his first appearances.
The three-time world champion (2012, 2013 and 2014), did not compete in PRCA events in 2016, instead roping in the now defunct Elite Rodeo Association.
The ERA cowboys are back and should provide some electricity to the bright lights of Vegas.
Corkill and partner Clay Tryan got off to a slow start during the 2017 season – not reaching the top-15 until late in the year – but the duo has hit full throttle and climbed to ninth in the world standings, each man winning $81,383.
The team roping should prove to be the tightest race of all events at the WNFR, leaders Kaleb Driggers ($133,977) and Junior Nogueria ($134,707) holding a lead of less than $1,000 over second-place Erich Rogers’ and Cory Petska’s total of $133,711 apiece.
There are no safe leads in the team roping, the top-15 separated by $66,702.
Last season, current No. 15 heeler Jeremy Buhler climbed from 14th to the world championship with partner Levi Simpson.
Simpson finished the 2017 season in 16th place on the headers’ side, missing the WNFR by one spot.
Buhler won the same amount of money as Simpson ($68,005), but Buhler finished in 15th in the heeling standings, notching the final WFNR position.
He will likely rope with header Tom Richards ($81,415 in eighth), who competed with heeler Kyle Lockett ($61,745).
Lockett finished the regular season in 17th place and two spots out of a WNFR position.
Congratulations to Dakota Eldridge and Matt Shiozawa on their Wilderness Circuit victories and WNFR qualifications and to Wyatt Denny and Jade Corkill for earning trips to Vegas.
Good luck to all in the upcoming Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at Thomas & Mack Center from Dec. 7-16 in Las Vegas.
The WNFR will air live at 7 p.m. nightly for all 10 nights on CBS Sports Network, Channel 158 on Dish Network and Channel 221 on DirecTV.