By: Justin Felisko
PUEBLO, Colo. – Team Cooper Tires could have easily become the 2007 New England Patriots if it wasn’t careful this past weekend at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Steamroll its opponents through the regular season and the early rounds of the playoffs only to falter in the Super Bowl.
Instead, Team Cooper Tires was more like the 1972 Miami Dolphins than the team that calls Foxborough, Massachusetts, home. Cooper Tires capped an undefeated season Sunday afternoon with a Monster Energy Team Challenge Championship courtesy of a 177.25-0 victory over Team Pendleton Whisky.
Expectations were extremely high for Team Cooper Tires from the get-go once Team Captain Jose Vitor Leme selected reigning and six-time PRCA champion Sage Kimzey to his team during a draft held at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, a month and a half ago.
Leme did not just pick Kimzey, but he made the best bull rider in the PRCA the No. 1 pick in the entire draft for the Monster Energy Team Challenge, presented by U.S. Border Patrol.
The selection was an example that Leme was not messing around one bit. If Leme was going to commit to riding for five weeks in a series with no world points offered, than he was going to certainly make sure he drafted a dominant team.
Leme did just that by then adding Dener Barbosa, who was later replaced by 2014 PBR Canada champion Stetson Lawrence, and 2018 Rookie of the Year Keyshawn Whitehorse to his squad.
Immediately, Team Cooper Tires had a major target on its back, and it was by far the team to beat heading into Division A play at the Pendleton Whisky Let ‘Er Buck Saloon at the South Point Arena.
The pressure of expectations never held this team back, though.
Leme rode Squeeze Box for 84.25 points on June 5, and Cooper Tires would never trail in the Monster Energy Team Challenge. Leme and company would defeat Team Can-Am 336.25-87 for its first of eight wins, and Team Cooper Tires was well on its way to an undefeated season.
Team Cooper Tires (8-0) did not even flinch – only two of its games were one-score games – and outscored its opponents 2,057.25-519.25 (+1,538 points).
It was once again Leme setting the tone for his team in the championship game. Following six consecutive buckoffs, the team captain held onto the tail of his rope to break open the scoreless game when he rode Sitting Bull for 88.75 points.
Whitehorse – the unsung hero for Team Cooper Tires all season long – then followed with 88.25 points on Stretch, and that was all the dominant unit needed for the inaugural Monster Energy Team Challenge Championship.
“I’m so happy and blessed about we won right here,” Leme told in-arena announcer Matt West. “I just have to thank these guys right here. We worked together for this, and we did a great job. I’m just thankful for all the fans right here today. Your support is very important for us. It’s amazing. I’m very happy.”
Whitehorse added, “It feels amazing, just to be able to compete in such a great arena with great fans, and having great teammates alongside with us. It doesn’t get much better.”
Kimzey went 0-for-2 in the title game, but his 86.25-point ride on Livin Lucky Saturday night got the train going in Team Cooper Tires’ 344.75-89 victory over Team Ariat in the semifinals.
The 25-year-old said he is happy to be a part of the championship team, but he does wish he could have performed better as an individual.
“At the end of the day, I know I underperformed big time, but there is no I in team,” Kimzey told PBR.com via phone Sunday afternoon. “We did what we need to do. Every time one of us wasn’t doing very good, we had somebody to pick up the slack. It was a pretty cool deal and a pretty big accomplishment to win the first-ever team championship.”
Lawrence went 3-for-11 as a replacement to Barbosa, who remains in Brazil amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It feels great,” Lawrence said inside Denny Sanford PREMEIR Center. “Just thanks to my teammates. They showed up this weekend and got the job done. That’s all that matters.”
Kimzey was one of a handful of PRCA riders that were able to compete in the METC, and he said it was generous gesture by the PBR to open its doors to riders from every association for this unique event.
“It was huge, especially for me coming off an injury in Vegas and not being on a bull in three months,” Kimzey said. “With the limited schedule that everybody has right now, it was going to be me going to the practice pen and getting on bulls for nothing. The PBR gave us all an opportunity to go get back on for some money. That was huge, for sure. I am grateful for the opportunity, and I can’t give the PBR enough credit for putting this together.”
Below is a recap of Team Cooper Tires’ Championship Season
Team Cooper Tires
Riding Percentage: 48%
Aggregate Score: 2,057.25
Average Score Per Game: 257.16
Average Ride Score: 85.72
Team Members: Jose Vitor Leme, Sage Kimzey, Stetson Lawrence & Keyshawn Whitehorse.
General Manager: Cody Lambert
REG. SEASON SCOREBOARD
Team Cooper Tires: 336.25, Team Can-Am 87 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 332, Team YETI: 0 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 175.75, Team Union Home Mortgage: 88.5 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 259.25, Team Las Vegas: 84.5 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 173, Team Wrangler: 170.25 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 259, Team Las Vegas 0 (W)
Team Cooper Tires: 344.75, Team Ariat 89 (W)*
Team Cooper Tires: 177.25, Team Pendleton Whisky 0 (W)*
MVP: Jose Vitor Leme was by far the best rider in the competition, and his 11-for-16 performance led the league. 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.
UNSUNG HERO: Keyshawn Whitehorse began the tournament as a rotation rider with Stetson Lawrence, yet he ended the competition as Leme’s right-hand man. Whitehorse finished fifth in the league in the individual aggregate by going 6-for-9 – half of his rides came in the postseason. He went 2-for-2 in the semifinal victory against Team Ariat, and chipped in a qualified ride in the Championship Game.
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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