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Team Roping Traditions Going Strong in Salinas

by Kendra Santos, PRCA Director of Communications | Aug 25, 2016

[PHOTO: Erich Rogers and Cory Petska won the Salinas marathon.]

[PHOTO: Erich Rogers and Cory Petska won the Salinas marathon.]

Every cowboy dreams of strapping on a Salinas buckle. Like some of the other treasured trophies in our sport, you can spot one of the California Rodeo’s coveted classics from across a crowded room. Part of the prestige that goes with winning Salinas is all of its rich history and tradition. And the buckle isn’t the only tradition that makes this rodeo one of a kind.

The cool coastal breeze, and card games and cookouts over in the cowboy campground are especially welcomed by guys coming off of the scorching pace and sweltering heat of the Fourth of July run. If there’s one event that’s ultra unique and old school at Salinas, it has to be the team roping.

A few factors that make the team roping stand out at Salinas include the longest scoreline in our sport, the fact that both cowboys come from behind the barrier on the same side of the steer over on the left, it being the only five-head average out there and equal money. Winning the team roping title at Salinas is done marathon-style after weathering the challenging set of conditions that demand discipline and heavy-duty horsepower.

This year’s winning warriors at Big Week were Erich Rogers and Cory Petska. It was Rogers’ first Salinas buckle and Petska’s third—he also won it with Clay Tryan in 2004 and ’09.

“This is awesome,” said Rogers, who’ll be 30 on Aug. 14 and lives in Round Rock, Ariz. “This is a prestigious buckle to win. We get to run one a day and every round you hope they run one in there that won’t beat you to the back end. I like this rodeo a lot. I’ve roped here with Cory four times now, and we’d won second (in 2014) and eighth. It’s pretty neat to finally get a buckle out of here.”

The $8,590 each won for roping five steers in 47.4 seconds during Big Week—which included a check in Round 1, first in the short round and average—was a big deal in more ways than one. For starters, Rogers and Petska weren’t even in the top 50 when Reno rolled around in June. And there’s a very scary reason why. Rogers came dangerously close to losing his thumb at a ranch rodeo on Feb. 21, when his rope started to run, his right hand got sucked into the dally and burned it to the bone. The wreck tore a couple of tendons and severed an artery, which required surgery, and about two months on the injured reserve.

“It’s as good as it ever was now,” said Rogers, who’s roped at the last five straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeos, of his roping hand. “It’s a little dead in one spot where the nerves haven’t come back yet, but it doesn’t affect me because it’s on the outside of the thumb. It bothered me a little at first, but I’m healed up now. I’m so grateful and blessed that it didn’t just come completely off.”

The Big Week win at Salinas jumped them from 18th and 19th in the world to 11th and 10th, respectively. It being a true cowboy contest just makes it even more self-satisfying and sweet.

“You don’t get to go to rodeos where you come from the same box, let ’em out there 35 feet and go chase them,” Rogers said. “It’s a lot of fun and you don’t get to do it every day. The big key here is getting steers that don’t mortally fly. This rodeo really separates the horsepower. You can’t get by on a mediocre horse at Salinas. They have to sit there and score, then run as hard as they can, then drag their butt and make it work.”

Rogers rode a 15-year-old sorrel horse he calls Palmer after his previous owner, Bryce Palmer. Rogers bought the horse in April over the phone after Petska told him he was for sale, that he liked heeling behind him and that “he’d be good for the team.”

Petska won his third Salinas buckle on a 12-year-old sorrel horse he calls Chumlee, after the Pawn Stars character. “He scores good, and he’s really, really fast,” said Petska, who’ll be 37 on Sept. 3 and has roped at 12 NFRs since 2003. “And he stops hard. We went past the camera pit in the short round, and he took the hit from a 650-pound steer. My heel horses are fast and always let me get up there and get a good throw.

“With both guys coming from behind the barrier, it’s easy for a heeler to get behind, then the header has to slow the steer down for the heeler to catch up, he’s coming in fast and almost gets too tight, so he needs a couple jumps to get his distance right. Not all heel horses have head-horse speed, and it’s a big advantage to have a heel horse that can run. I’m not behind very often, and that makes my job a lot easier.”

Rogers and Petska were sixth in the average on three. Then a few mishaps ranging from slipped legs to broken barriers and big-league runners mixed things up again in Round 4 on Sunday morning right before that afternoon’s short round.

“A few guys fouled up in the fourth round, and it opened the door for us,” Rogers said. “It pushed us up there to having a chance. The steer we had in the short round tried a little. I reached from a coil back on the gain, and that sorrel horse rated so good, dragged his butt, cowed off and took up the slack. Cory heeled that steer as fast as he could. He wanted to win it, and when he wants to win he fires.”

“You can’t predict anything at Salinas,” Petska said. “This is the ultimate ‘go rope your steer and see what happens’ rodeo. The high team can have four seconds on you and draw a runner and lose their lead. That’s the thing that’s crazy and awesome about this rodeo. You can never say you’re going to win it. Over that long scoreline, there are steers you can be 13 on and steers you can be 7 on. The main thing I do here is catch every steer. You can’t panic, no matter what steer you get.”

Their ascent into the top 15 came later than in previous seasons, but they tried not to sweat it.

“I was a little timid about it, but Cory and I have our run down really good to where when we draw a good one we’re going to do good on him,” Rogers said. “I have so much confidence in him and he has so much confidence in me. When they give us good steers we’re going to use them.”

Petska promises he was not puckered up about their having so much ground to make up after missing a couple months.

“The NFR is not made until the summer anyway,” he said. “You don’t make the Finals unless you have a good summer, so it really doesn’t matter. Every year somebody has a great winter and they can’t finish in the summer. I was needing a break anyway. I was burned out on driving. When we did come back, we came back fresh and looking forward to the summer.”

How do they like their chances of backing in the box at the Thomas & Mack come December?

“It’s looking good,” Rogers said. “We have quite a few rodeos left to go to. They need to keep giving us good steers, and we’re going to make a run for it. Winning Salinas catapulted us into the top 15 from the top 25 and put more fire under us. We’ve got a chance. We can do this.”

“Winning Salinas is a big boost,” Petska said. “It was a boost of confidence to where we can enjoy the rest of the summer and it’s more about holding your spot than fighting to get a spot. We’re just going to keep going to a couple rodeos a week. I’m looking forward to enjoying the Northwest.”

I’ve seen the Petska family around Salinas during Big Week as far back as I can remember—even some of them on the tennis courts in the evenings when I was a kid. Salinas is a multi-generational tradition for so many rodeo families who would not miss it.

“I love this rodeo, like everybody else,” said Petska, who lives in Marana, Ariz., with his wife, Sherry Cervi, who’s won six Salinas buckles of her own over on the track. “It’s one of the best rodeos all year, and team roping’s been a big part of the Salinas tradition for over 100 years. A lot of the other big rodeos didn’t always have team roping, but part of the prestige of Salinas is because our event has always been a big deal here. The long score and big arena make it a challenge, we all love coming here and they give a badass buckle. That’s about as good as it gets.”

Knowing the Score…

Salinas’ 35-foot team roping scoreline is the longest in the sport. In case you’re curious, the next in line is the 30-footer at the Daddy (Cheyenne Frontier Days). Every morning right before slack starts—for as far back as anyone can remember—someone steps into the foggy arena with a Styrofoam cup in hand and sticks it in the dirt. It’s there to help the headers gauge the start.

Steve “Pooh Bear” Branco did the honors this year, so I asked him to help explain yet another time-honored Salinas tradition.

“The tie-down and bulldogging scores are 25 feet and the box is 27 feet deep, so they don’t need a cup and only need to see about tail to the pin—or maybe daylight on a good one,” explained Branco, 60, who headed for David Inman at the 1983 NFR and first roped at Salinas as a college freshman at Cal Poly 40 years ago in 1976. “The team roping score is 10 feet longer, so there’s no way you can take off before they hit that cup. It’s impossible to get out (without breaking the barrier) if you take off before the steer gets to the cup. If he’s really good, you’re going to give him a stride over the cup. On a runner, you can kick when his nose hits the cup.”

The tie-down roping and steer wrestling are two and a short at Salinas, and the cattle are drawn. The team roping steers are chute run, though the cowboys pay such close attention that it doesn’t take long to recognize the one that’s rolling up in the same order they are. Back in the day, calf ropers and bulldoggers ran a calf or steer every day, too, and they were all fresh. In fact, the calves were still on the cows, who were waiting for the calves in the pens after every run.

The old timers headed and heeled with grass ropes at Salinas. In the late ’50s, heelers started using nylon ropes, and realized the cotton didn’t work anymore because their ropes would run when they dallied. So they started putting rubber on their saddle horns. That’s when the committee put in a ground rule allowing cotton only on the horn for a stretch of time.

“Salinas is old school,” Pooh said. “That’s a big part of what makes it great.”

where there’s a will …

Four-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header Blaine Linaweaver suffered a devastating setback a year ago July 2, when he got his hand caught in the dally heading a steer for Brandon Bates at the Oakley (Utah) Independence Day Rodeo. The renowned reacher cut his right index finger off, and the rope cut through the bone. When Linaweaver looked down, his finger was literally hanging by a tendon.

Linaweaver, who with Jory Levy set the then 3.5-second world team roping record at the San Angelo (Texas) Rodeo, had surgery to reattach the finger the next morning. Unfortunately, it was so crooked and non-functional that they had to go back in for a second surgery to straighten the finger out a couple weeks later. Linaweaver was forced to the sidelines for months, and searched high and low for a silver lining all the while having no idea if the finger would ever be functional enough to return to roping.

“When they did the second surgery they were very concerned about infection and gangrene, so the doctor wanted it elevated above my heart and about all I could do was sit on the couch,” said Linaweaver, 41, who lives in Irvine, Calif., with his wife, Michele. “I was down in the dumps, and didn’t run my first real steer—full contact—until right before Thanksgiving.”

Fast forward to the 2016 California Rodeo, and imagine the Salinas-sized sigh Linaweaver let out after winning both the second and fourth rounds of the team roping with Jake Twisselman.

“This deal has given me a whole new perspective,” Linaweaver said right after winning his second round of the week on Sunday morning. “I don’t take roping for granted anymore, and I appreciate and enjoy it more than ever, because I know now that it can be taken away at any time. To do well here at Salinas is pretty fun. And it’s especially cool that this is one of my all-time favorite rodeos.”

Courtesy of PRCA