By: Justin Felisko
PUEBLO, Colo. – Team Cooper Tires General Manager Cody Lambert chuckled early on during the Monster Energy Team Challenge, presented by U.S. Border Patrol, when discussing his captain Jose Vitor Leme.
Leme had begun the Monster Energy Team Challenge 9-for-12 and had accounted for half of Team Cooper Tires’ total scores in winning the Division A title.
Could Leme win the Monster Energy Team Challenge by himself?
“If I had my choice between a team of four guys and a team of just Jose, I would have to really think about it and see who the four guys are,” Lambert said in early June. “That is how good he is, and that is how good he expects to be.”
Leme capped off his pure dominance in the Monster Energy Team Challenge this weekend, riding Sitting Bull for 88.75 points in the Championship Game on Sunday afternoon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as Team Cooper Tires defeated Team Pendleton Whisky 177.25-0 to win the inaugural METC championship.
The No. 1 bull rider in the world was by far the best rider in the competition, and Leme’s 11-for-16 performance won him the Built Ford Tough MVP award and its $10,000 bonus.
Leme earned a total of $47,000 during the entirety of the Monster Energy Team Challenge.
The 2017 World Finals event winner accounted for 46.41% of his team’s total score, and his 11 qualified rides was more than the entire season totals of eight of the other 11 teams in the tournament. He averaged 86.8 points per ride.
Team Cooper Tires never trailed once in the tournament.
“Man, I’m just grateful, you know?” Leme said. “I just have to thank God for blessing me a lot. I’m in a great moment in my career, so I’m very proud we win the Challenge and I win the MVP, too. It’s amazing.”
The 23-year-old kept things going during the Sunday afternoon Pendleton Whisky Velocity Tour event with a 1-for-2, seventh-place finish. Leme earned three points toward the world standings to increase his lead on injured No. 2 Jess Lockwood to 253 points.
Leme next competes at the Buckin’ at the Ranch Touring Pro Division event next weekend in Prairie Grove, Arkansas.
The Unleash The Beast second half resumes on Aug. 7-8 in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Six-time PRCA champion Sage Kimzey has gotten to know Leme more during the Monster Energy Team Challenge, and he has now seen firsthand just how good he is. Kimzey says Leme just needs to stay the course and a gold buckle looks to be in his future.
The ‘scary’ thing, says Kimzey, is that Leme is still so raw as a bull rider. At 23 years old, and for a guy that didn’t truly dedicate himself to the sport until he was 18 years old when he put aside his soccer ball for his bull rope, there is still so much more for Leme to accomplish.
“Jose is really good, and it is still very raw right now for him,” Kimzey said. “Most of us have 15-plus years bull riding experience under our belt. Really for him, he is not even close to the pinnacle of where he can be. That is the real crazy thing. He still has so much room for improvement. He learns and pays attention very, very well.
“The real scary thing for all of the other competitors is that he is nowhere near the top of his mountain. He is setting all of these records and absolutely shattering what people consider as good as it can be. He is only at 85% of his capacity. Just watching him and the way he carries himself and the way he looks at everything, he is unshakeable, for one. And two, he has a fire and a conviction about riding bulls that many guys don’t have. It has been impressive to watch.”
Lambert said last month that he appreciates Leme’s appetite to want to improve.
Sunday was a great example as he made a standout ride on Sitting Bull away from his hand. A similar out last season may have easily bucked him off.
Leme knows he has yet to win a World Championship, and all of the praise he has received this season is justified, but the job is far from over.
“Leme is not satisfied with what he has done yet,” Lambert said in June. “We have to remember he is not one of the World Champion bull riders. He is not going to get complacent. He is still working, trying to get better. He still has issues, but he is getting getter. He doesn’t have it down. Maybe he will and maybe he never will, but he is getting better. He is the best one going right now, and if he continues to get better, it is going to be hard for anyone to beat him.
“Jose has continued to work hard, continued to get better, and continued to stay humble about it. I expect him to keep getting better, and there is no doubt. I expect him to win as many championships as he wants to. But it has to start with one.”
As much as the rest of us may wonder if Leme could have won the entire championship by himself, Leme has continuously praised his teammates since the METC began in Las Vegas at the Pendleton Whisky Let ‘Er Buck Saloon at the South Point Arena.
Leme knows he needed the help of Kimzey (4-for-14), Keyshawn Whitehorse (6-for-9) and Stetson Lawrence (3-for-11) to win the team championship.
Yes, Leme won the MVP title, but the ultimate goal was to win a team championship, and Cooper Tires accomplished this dream together.
“From the moment I chose these guys, I knew that everyone could do their job to help the team get where we are,” Leme concluded. “We managed to do everything we expected. I’m very happy to help my team win, too.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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