By: Justin Felisko
PUEBLO, Colo. – Jose Vitor Leme has his conductor hat on and the Team Cooper Tires freight train is getting closer and closer to reaching its final destination on Sunday afternoon.
Leme’s undefeated squad (7-0) advanced to the Championship Game of the Monster Energy Team Challenge, presented by U.S. Border Patrol, with a 344.75-89 rout of Team Ariat (5-2-2) on Saturday night at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.
Team Cooper Tires will look to finish its perfect season on Sunday when it faces Team Pendleton Whisky in the title game at 1:30 p.m. ET live on CBS national television and RidePass.
Cooper Tires ripped off back-to-rides to begin the game vs. Ariat, and it was full steam ahead as Cooper Tires once again jumped out to a quick lead and suffocated its opponents in a matter of minutes.
The Division A champion has never once trailed at the Monster Energy Team Challenge, and it has begun a game with a qualified ride on its first attempt in five of seven games.
“This is important thing, riding the first bulls certainly gives us more confidence for the next ones,” Leme said. “Our team is focused on this prize, and we will fight until the end for that.”
Six-time PRCA champion Sage Kimzey was the first to strike for Team Cooper Tires Saturday by riding Livin Lucky for 86.25 points.
Team Ariat’s Ky Hamilton had some trouble in the bucking chutes, so that moved the game on to Keyshawn Whitehorse, who made it a quick 170.50-point lead with 84.25 points on Walkin Tall.
Hamilton, Maverick Potter and Tyler Bingham all quickly bucked off for Team Ariat, and Stetson Lawrence was unable to ride Moon Cat before Leme busted the game open with his 86.5 points on Little Joe.
Team Cooper Tires led 257-0 at halftime, its largest first-half lead of the tournament.
“It is huge,” Kimzey said of Cooper Tires continuously putting teams in an early deficit. “This sport is definitely based on a lot on momentum. You get off to a quick start and it kind of sets everything up, right? That is the one thing about this team deal. I think everybody understands how important every bull is because, at the end of the day, you really only have seven chances here, and every ride is important.
“That is one thing, our team is totally sold out on really getting off to a good start and getting the lead, and not putting yourself in a hard situation. Bottom line, if you can go in and start dominating a game early, it makes your job that much easier. That is what we have been really good at. Everybody really taking care of business, and everybody being really focused and just staying that way. A lot of times you can get very complacent having a lot of success, but this team is not doing that.”
Whitehorse added to the blowout in the second half by riding Melanie’s Dream for 87.75 points.
The 2018 Rookie of the Year was the only rider in the game to go 2-for-2, and Whitehorse is now 5-for-7 at the METC. He is tied with Leme (10-for-14) for the best riding percentage in the tournament at a blistering 71.4%.
“We all feed off each other,” Whitehorse said. “We all feed off each other’s confidence no matter what, but whenever we get a qualified ride in the beginning to get things going, it puts us in that mindset that we are ready to take over and keep things rolling in that direction.”
Whitehorse explained there is certain an understanding among Leme, Kimzey, Lawrence and himself that once the game begins, they are all business.
None of them has to say anything.
“We have this type of energy that we all put off,” Whitehorse added. “Once the energy gets put on, it is like a nonverbalized thing we all know and we all feel.”
Team Cooper Tires and Team Pendleton Whisky each won their respective divisions in the regular season, and the two units have been by far the best two in the competition.
Pendleton Whisky is 17-for-43 (39.5%) compared to Cooper Tires and its 22-for-43 (51.2%) run at the METC.
Regardless, the slate is completely wiped clean on Sunday in the winner-take-all Championship Game.
“Their grit has impressed me,” Whitehorse said. “A lot of them are hurt, and they just keep on pushing through it all.”
Leme has a rematch against Hostage in the first half on Sunday, and the matchup could bring with it 90-point fireworks. The world No. 1 bull rider is 2-for-4 against Hostage at all levels with two 90-point rides. He just recently won the Rocksprings, Texas, Touring Pro Division event with a 90-point ride on Hostage. However, Hostage also bucked Leme off in Guthrie, Oklahoma, earlier this season in just 2.19 seconds.
“We are going to make a good fight Sunday with Team Pendleton Whiskey, for sure,” Leme concluded.
Professional Bull Riders – METC Playoffs Game 3
Sioux Falls, SD, 2020
Event Leaders (Round 1-Round 2-Event Aggregate-Event Points)
1. Keyshawn Whitehorse, 84.25-87.75-172.00
2. Cooper Davis, 0-89-89.00
3. Jose Vitor Leme, 86.5-0-86.50
4. Sage Kimzey, 86.25-0-86.25
Stetson Lawrence, 0-0-0.00
Tyler Bingham, 0-0-0.00
Ky Hamilton, 0-0-0.00
Maverick Potter, 0-0-0.00
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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