By: Justin Felisko
April 27, 2016
PUEBLO, Colo. – There is no rivalry brewing between rookie phenoms Derek Kolbaba and Jess Lockwood.
Instead, their budding friendship is actually pushing the two youngest riders on the Built Ford Tough Series to higher levels of success week after week.
It is why the two Rookie of the Year contenders have begun to room with each other since Lockwood made his BFTS debut in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, earlier this month. It is why Lockwood was pulling Kolbaba’s rope just before the kid from Walla Walla, Washington, was spurring his way to an event-winning 89 points on Kookaburra in Des Moines, Iowa.
The two rookies have combined to win the last two BFTS events, with Lockwood storming onto the scene and winning his first BFTS event in just his third try two weeks ago in Billings, Montana.
Just a week after Lockwood, 18, was the subject of rookie sensation talks, Kolbaba, 20, thrust himself back atop the Rookie of the Year standings and national stardom with his victory at the Des Moines Invitational.
“You damn right, it ain’t just Jess,” Kolbaba joked. “It is pretty special to be riding with great guys, especially guys like Jess. Having Jess pull my rope and Nevada (Newman) helping me. We are feeding off each other and just trying to let everybody push each other to be their best.”
Kolbaba said watching Lockwood ride Modified Clyde for 90.5 points for the victory in Billings had him motivated to try and one-up their friendly competition this weekend at Wells Fargo Arena.
Kolbaba, who had turned 20 years old just three days earlier, did just that by rebounding from his 4.78-second buckoff against Slick Rick in Round 1 by riding I’m Trouble for 86.75 points in Round 2 Sunday. He then positioned himself for the victory by making the 8-second mark on Kookaburra.
“That is exactly it. We feed off each other,” Kolbaba said. “I was really happy for Jess to win last weekend. You ain’t kidding what kind of fire that put under me to just want to go out there and do the same thing.
“Anytime you see a good bull ride it fires you up. It makes you want to go out there and be better.”
Lockwood agreed about the two rookies, as well as the entire group of young riders on the BFTS, pushing each other to be better every weekend.
“Just being around each other makes us want to ride,” Lockwood said. “It helps out a bunch surrounding yourself with greatness.”
While Lockwood has quickly became one of the leading poster boys of the 2016 rookie class, Kolbaba actually made a pretty big splash of his own late last season and earlier this year.
Kolbaba qualified for the 2015 World Finals at 19 years old by going 2-for-3 at the BlueDEF Finals to finish eighth in the event average and earn one of the World Finals qualification spots up for grabs for non-Top 35 riders.
The first-time World Finals qualifier rode Long Haired Outlaw for 85.75 points in Round 3 for his only ride in Las Vegas.
A month earlier, Kolbaba had made his BFTS debut by riding Ram Jam for 82.25 points in Allentown, Pennsylvania, minutes after world leader J.B. Mauney had been bucked off by Tattoo.
Kolbaba then made headlines this season by winning three consecutive non-BFTS events in a span of five days in January, earning himself a spot well inside the Top 35 of the world standings.
Two weeks later and Kolbaba won the 15/15 Bucking Battle in Anaheim by riding DaNutso for a career-high 89.5 points.
Kolbaba leads all rookies with 16 qualified rides in 44 attempts. He is ranked seventh in the world standings and could be even higher if not for his 8-for-30 slump heading into Des Moines because of an injury to his riding hand/wrist that he sustained at a February rodeo.
“The biggest thing is forgetting about my hand,” Kolbaba said. “It is going to hurt whether you ride for 10 seconds or 2 seconds, so you might as well ride for 10. It always helps when you get a score. That is for sure. It kind of takes the pain away. It is nice to start getting some things going.
CBS Sports Network commentator and 1995 Rookie of the Year J.W. Hart has been impressed.
“I have been high on him since he got here,” Hart said. “His demeanor and his mindset has been good. He went through the ups and downs early. He didn’t just come in and set the world on fire. He didn’t come in and get blown out of the water. He has come in and kind of matured really good. I like the way he is maturing.”
Kolbaba is still classified as a rookie because he never cracked the Top 30 of the 2015 world standings.
The similarities between Kolbaba and Lockwood go much beyond the fact that they are two baby-faced bull riders that also won state high school bull riding championships.
Like Lockwood, Kolbaba, the 2013 Washington High School state champion, is also from a rich rodeo background. Kolbaba’s father, Kyle, was a PRCA bull rider and his mother, Sandi Rowe, was a barrel racer.
Lockwood’s father, Ed, was a saddle bronc rider and his mother, Angie, is a former barrel racer.
Their strong upbringings have helped both rookies handle the spotlight
“That is cool to see,” Hart said. “Man, I can promise you there is nobody other than their mothers that is more excited about a set of young guys coming that look good. These are good kids that ride good and seem to be tough. They appear to be headed in the right direction. They all have that right frame of mind.”
They don’t want to use the excuse of, ‘Well, I am just a rookie,’ whenever they get bucked off.
They expect to ride and they expect to win.
They also expect to contend to contend for World Championships.
“If you are showing up here that should be your goal every time,” Kolbaba concluded. “To show up and win and be the guy holding the gold buckle at the end of the year. This is right where it starts and this is how you have to do it. You have to win. If I can just keep racking these up I will be doing just fine.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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