by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Dec 02, 2015California’s been weathering a debilitating drought for years now. But the Golden State’s cowboy contingent is strong, inside the arena and out.
When the rains came right before the 2015 RAM California Circuit Finals Rodeo, mudslides that closed roads to host city Lancaster postponed opening night from Friday, Oct. 16 to the following afternoon. To tell you how treacherous the roads were, it typically takes team roper Monty Joe Petska four and a half hours to get to Lancaster from his hometown in Turlock. This year—after playing truck chicken with boulders six feet around that were rolling into the road, and catching a few winks in a bedroll while waiting for dangerous floodwaters to back down—32 hours.
By the time I left home Saturday morning to take the long way around, my intention was just to go be a mom, watch my son Lane rope and head home Sunday night after all three perfs were packed into two days. I had such a blast watching the next generation work—in so many cases kids and even grandkids of friends I’ve known all my life. I’ve been so fortunate to have a front-row seat to their rodeo rise, cheering so many of them on since their stick-horse-racing days.
Cowboy kids are so cool that they’ll let a mom tag along when they go eat in town between perfs and, in Lancaster’s case, make hot laps on a back road not far from the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds that’s textured so your tires “sing” Jingle Bells as you drive down a stretch of it in the fast lane. We were all “laughing all the way” while making U-turns to do it one more time.
In Lancaster, I got to see Blaine Jones—who belongs to my Cal Poly contemporaries Pat and Leslie (she was the National High School Rodeo Association queen in the early days of our friendship); Blaine grew up in the Morro Bay arena of Hall of Fame friends John W. Jones Sr. and Jr.—finish strong to win his first year-end circuit steer wrestling title. I was also witness to Sterling Lambert’s feat of a third-straight circuit finals win in that event.
“I didn’t think I had a shot at winning it again after I missed the barrier on the first one,” Sterling said. “Everybody was bulldogging so good.”
Sterling’s not a big talker—especially about himself—but if you want to talk about his horse, Bullseye, you might get a few more words out of him because he’s pretty proud, and rightly so. Four years ago, Bullseye, who’s 17 now, was a head horse when Sterling bought him. He started hauling him three years ago, and Sterling, Ryle Smith (this year’s circuit finals all-around champ, who’s the son of another high school rodeo friend of mine, Charlene Hansen, and her husband, Charlie; Charlene’s twin sister, Marlene, is the mom of first-round circuit finals team roping champ Blake Teixeira) and Billy Bugenig won first, second and third on him at the circuit finals. Three years later, and with “B” (Bugenig) back on the hazing side, Bullseye is three-for-three in Lancaster.
I got to watch Lane and Jordan Ketscher win the team roping average in Lancaster from the back of the bucking chutes, while visiting with my old Wrangler National Finals Rodeo bull riding buddy Myron Duarte. Myron hauled bulls to Lancaster for John Growney, but my strongest memory of him over the years was us (and our respective dates) being the only four people in a Colorado Springs theater when we went to watch the movie 8 Seconds for the first time. At the end, when the credits and real-life pictures of our late friend Lane Frost rolled, we just sat there in silence, still in disbelief that he was really gone. Lane Frost is, of course, my Lane’s namesake.
Those of you who think of Jordan as just a tie-down roper—in his first year of getting out of the circuit much, he finished 21st in the world in that event—might have been surprised at how “Mav” went off on all three steers on the back side at the circuit finals. Having seen this young gun bring cows off a mountain and make shots in the branding corral that would get a double take out of trick roper Tomas Garcilazo (who also entertained crowds in Lancaster), I know the $64,225 Jordan won in 2015 and his finishing 12th in the world all-around race was no fluke.
“I had a little success in the calf roping last winter, and had enough won to keep going and have a chance to make it (the NFR),” Jordan said. “Lane and I didn’t get to enter all the rodeos, because he stayed on his permit while he was finishing college (thanks to Jordan, Lane’ll rope in the PRCA Permit Challenge—for the top five money winners on permits this year—Dec. 3 at the South Point in Vegas), but I learned a lot in both events this year about the ins and outs of rodeoing. The big deal I got out of 2015 was confidence.”
Jordan drew on the stronger end of the calves in Lancaster, but you’ll never hear that—or any other whining word—from him. “We try to keep everything positive in our truck, and I feel like we do a pretty good job of that,” he said. “We have fun even when we’re just driving, and that rubs off on my calf roping, too.” (These’ll be the two that’ll be out on airboats and having a big time at Disneyworld next spring, while in town for the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo.)
NFR heeler Kyle Lockett’s been a great friend and mentor to Jordan and Lane, as has Lane’s Uncle Blaine (Santos), who found and started Lane’s head horse, Orejas, AKA “Ray,” who’s 9 now, from scratch. “Ray and I grew up at the same time, and have broken some ice together,” Lane said. “If it wasn’t for Jordan and Ray I wouldn’t be headed to Florida. I’m just lucky Blaine gave me this chance with this horse.”
Though he cussed his roommates—little brother, Taylor, and fellow California Circuit Finals header Lane Lowry—at the time, Lane was thanking them at finals end for entering him at a few rodeos against his will, because he was trying to focus on finishing college at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in four years flat. Lane, who sat out the circuit finals last year for not making his circuit count, hit that magic number on the nose this year, thanks to Taylor and Lowry’s insistence and persistence.
Then there’s Jordan. Lane’s been looking up to Jordan since he was the cool cowboy kid in the age group above him during their junior rodeo days. Jordan was the one behind Lane getting his permit at 18, and keeping it while hitting the books hard to finish school—just like Jordan did at Fresno State before hitting the big trail. Jordan was behind Lane when they made the 4.8-second run of the College National Finals Rodeo Lane’s freshman year, which with all that happened in all three timed events resulted in the two of them being spotlighted in the short-round opening as the men’s all-around co-leaders, and Lane being named that year’s National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year.
“We’re so close, and we have so much fun together, whether we’re at a rodeo or doctoring cows and branding calves during the week,” Lane said. “Jordan’s a cowboy. I love that about him. Jordan’s been back there for a lot of the best runs I’ve ever made, and winning the circuit finals with him is what makes it special to me.
“Everybody from out here jokes that they don’t want to go to Florida, because it’s so far. But they don’t mean it. It’s a big stage, and the biggest we’ve been on so far. The RNCFR made a big splash in Florida last year, with Bob Tallman behind the mic. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.” (Lane grew up being both Tallman and Jake Barnes in our living-room rodeos.)
I realized there was a subplot to this story brewing when Jordan got in Lane’s rig to drive back home to the family ranch in Squaw Valley, while Lane headed north with Sterling and another nice young man by the name of Cody that I’d just met at the awards ceremony. Cody was clearly one of Sterling’s cowboy friends from home, and he was so obviously pumped for Sterling’s three-peat that I snapped a shot of them with that third-straight circuit finals buckle.
As we walked away from the awards party, I asked Lane and Jordan who the Cody kid was that I’d just met because I hadn’t seen him around before. “Oh, he’s a cowboy from Quincy,” they said. “He’s a pitcher, too. Great guy.” Typical cowboys. When I put that simple cell-phone shot of Sterling and Cody up on Twitter, it was retweeted to 348,600 mainstream sports fans by the Cleveland Indians. Yes, come to find out, Major League Baseball rookie sensation Cody Anderson was the American League Pitcher of the Month in September. He also happened to grow up in Quincy, which explained why Sterling, Cody and Lane drove into the night to meet up with 2015 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Coach of the Year Jesse Segura—head coach of the Golden Eagles at Feather River College in Quincy—for a meeting the next morning.
The connections were all starting to come together. Jesse, who won the 2003 NIRA men’s all-around championship while rodeoing for Cal Poly, got Feather River’s rodeo program off the ground with the help, guidance and support of Cody’s late—and by all accounts great—grandpa, Danny Leonhardt. Sterling, who like Jesse is a native of Fallon, Nev., and Northern California NFR bulldogger “B” served as Jesse’s assistant coaches the last several years. Lane and Jesse worked closely the last couple years as the NIRA West Coast Region’s student and adult directors, and also on the NIRA Board, on which Lane served as the 2015 NIRA National Student President. The cause and labor of love this particular truckload of bronc riding, bulldogging, roping, pitching cowboys were coming together over: the Western Heritage Preservation Society.
I happened to attend Jesse’s first meeting on this subject several years ago, while up in Plymouth for Lane and Taylor’s Challenge of Champions Rodeo, which is an annual event for the top three in each event put on by the California High School Rodeo Association. Jesse introduced the WHPS idea there, then went back to Quincy and worked on it quietly nights and weekends the last few years while keeping his rodeo coaching career front and center as his main focus.
“I’ve wanted to do this all my life, because when I was growing up a ranch kid I saw how ranchers and farmers got separated instead of pulled together when issues and challenges came up in this industry,” Jesse said. “We want to rally the entire Western industry around this way of life, so we have a strong, unified voice.”
WHPS President Jesse’s just 36, and he’s surrounded himself with a starting lineup of 20-somethings: Sterling (who goes by “Gator”) will serve as Events Coordinator; Cody (who also answers to “Big Country”) as Professional Athletes Advisor; Lane as Marketing and Sponsorship Director; (Oregon ranch-raised PRCA bulldogger) Brandon Mackenzie (who rodeoed for Jesse and hazed for Lane in college, and now shares the bunkhouse in Quincy that Sterling and Billy used to share with Lane and Cody) as Northwest Advisor and Recruiter; and Andrew Larson as Social Media Director. Brandon and Lane this year replaced Sterling and Billy B, who are headed back out on the big trail, as Jesse’s assistant rodeo coaches at Feather River.
“Yes, they’re young, but they’re all good people, good cowboys and smart businessmen, and we all share a passion and willingness to work hard for this lifestyle,” Jesse said. “We need to pull ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, off-roaders and all outdoorsmen and agricultural people together in order to preserve and strengthen the Western way of life. A lot of rodeo people have rural, ranching roots, but you’d be surprised at how many professional athletes in other sports share our love of this lifestyle. We’re here to be positive and proactive. Our memberships are free, and our goal is 15 million members who will have a strong enough voice to save the agricultural industry in this country so it doesn’t get left behind. America’s ag industry employs millions of people, and it’s the greatest way of life there is. It’s worth saving, and that’s up to all of us. We want to share this Western lifestyle with mainstream America.”
That’s where guys like Cody—who splits wood by hand to stay in shape in the offseason and is already using his Major League stage to spread the good word on the Western way of life—come in. Cody and other professional athletes will join forces with cowboys and ProRodeo Hall of Famers in this sport to rally support for the non-profit Western Heritage Preservation Society.
“I love the people and the culture in agriculture,” Cody said. “A handshake should be worth more than a signature. I appreciate the grit, toughness and perseverance these guys have. It’s not an easy life, but cowboys live hard and play hard, and they earn everything they get. I respect that. I grew up working cows on the ranch with my grandpa. He took me on my first elk hunt. Gator, Brandon and I are carrying on that tradition in his honor now (Grandpa Danny died in May 2014), and I feel at home working with all of these guys, because they’re cowboys who share my love of this lifestyle.”
Cody raised and showed steers in 4-H in his younger years, and stuck a cleated toe back into the cattle business last year when he bought one cow and turned her out with Gator’s herd. “I’m about to sell my first steer out of that first cow,” smiled Cody, who humbly served as this fall’s Quincy High School Homecoming Parade Grand Marshal in jeans and boots (they retired his Quincy High jersey—No. 33—on the occasion; oh, and the bulldogger-built Cody never rodeoed for Feather River, but he did pitch for the Golden Eagles before taking flight with the Cleveland Indians). “I grew up living the cowboy life, and when I retire from baseball I want to own a cattle ranch. This Western lifestyle is a passion so many of us share, and once you’ve lived it you never really leave it. We all work hard to be the best we can, whether we’re working toward the World Series, the Super Bowl or Rodeo’s Super Bowl—the NFR.”
When Gator wanted one of Cody’s old gloves last spring, Cody had his glove sponsor make him one with the name Gator on it. When Gator won his third-straight circuit finals buckle, he stuck it on Cody’s belt and told him to wear it until he wins one of his own.
Hard work. No excuses. Keep your word, because it’s Cowboy Code. Yes, Cowboy is Cool.
Courtesy of PRCA