ELKO – December has come, the bright lights of Vegas are set and the top-15 competitors in the world standings in each event of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association are ready to roll in the biggest rodeo of the year – the Wrangler Nationals Rodeo.
Four cowboys with strong Nevada ties had seasons successful enough to be ranked among the best world in their respective events: Elko steer wrestler Dakota Eldridge, Fallon heeler Jade Corkill, Gardnerville bareback rider Wyatt Denny and calf roper Matt Shiozawa of Chubbock, Idaho.
The Silver State will be well-represented in the WNFR, but the color the cowboys are chasing is gold – gold buckles.
The qualification in the steer wrestling makes five in a row for Eldridge, who enters the WNFR in 10th place in the PRCA world standings with a total of $80,980 in winnings during the 2017 season.
Eldridge did the bulk of his damage early in the season, tailing off in his go-to event during the home stretch of the year.
One of his most significant performances of the season came in the Silver State, taking home the steer wrestling and all-around titles on June 24 in the Reno Rodeo – winning $10,333 during the rodeo.
His second-place run of 4.3 seconds in the short round ($1,164) solidified his average victory with a total time of 13.4 seconds on three runs ($6,142), adding to his second-place effort of 4.2 seconds in the second go ($3,027).
He has a long way to climb in the chase for a world championship, trailing current No. 1 ($163,151) by $82,171.
However, anything can happen at the WNFR – especially given the increased payout of the rodeo compared to years past.
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 gave more runs to his backup horse, Cruiser, saving Rusty for the big dance.
Eldridge has had plenty of success at the WNFR before, claiming the average title in 2015 on his way to a runner-up finish for the world title.
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.
How about knocking down a decade’s worth of trips to Vegas?
He will make his 10th appearance in the WNFR.
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 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.”
Congratulations to Dakota Eldridge, Matt Shiozawa, Wyatt Denny and Jade Corkill for earning qualifications to the Super Bowl of rodeo.
Good luck to all in the upcoming Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at Thomas & Mack Center, running from Thursday through Dec. 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.