The College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) is set for June 11-17 at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper. More than 400 college athletes and well over 1,000 horses from all over the country will make their way to the heart of Natrona County to compete for team and individual titles.
The top three student-athletes in each event from the 11 regions qualify, as do the top two men’s and women’s teams from each region.
CNFR events include saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, breakaway roping and goat tying.
Wyoming’s hopes for trophy buckles and saddles rest largely with the University of Wyoming and Gillette College.
UW sends a powerhouse men’s team to Casper next month led by all-around cowboys John Jensen and Bodie Mattson. In the roughstock events, either Bozeman’s Brice Patterson or Diamondville’s Donny Proffit can be expected to ride to the buzzer for UW any time out.
The ladies will be represented by Gillette College.
Talk about a team that punches above its weight. This plucky rodeo team will send four women to the CNFR — Haiden Thompson (freshman), Ellie Bard (senior), Jaycie West (sophomore) and Staheli Adams (freshman).
But one might be all they need.
Thompson has been lighting up for the Lady Pronghorns in the Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR) all season, finishing as goat tying champion, reserve champion breakaway roper, all-around champion and Rookie of the Year.
The Yoder cowgirl said she is beyond excited to see how she stacks up against the best in nation next month.
All Hail Haiden
Put in terms sports fans can understand, Thompson is emerging as the Babe Ruth of women’s rodeo.
Hailed as a rising star on the rodeo scene by the time she was 13, Thompson dominated in Little Britches Rodeo before doing the same in high school.
When she graduated last fall, Thompson could have written her ticket to just about any college. Every one of them with a rodeo program wanted her.
“I was back-and-forth on staying here or a school in Texas. Both made great offers,” Thompson said. “I knew [Gillette rodeo coach] Will [LaDuke], and I knew his reputation, and he ran a great program. He wanted my two older sisters, but they went somewhere else. So, I guess third time’s the charm.”
Thompson liked the idea of being close to home, and Gillette allowed the ranchwoman to take her classes online, which meant she could devote more time during the day to her horses.
Thompson was well on the radar before she was old enough to ride a horse.
Her dad, Thorpe, rodeoed some and all eight offspring are “ranchy” as all get out. Thompson’s older sisters — Jacey and Hadley — paved the way for Haiden.
“My sister Jacey has helped me a lot. Growing up, I tried to be like her in every way,” Thompson said.
At home, Thompson helps care for some 30 head of horses, but it’s a select three she is sure to pull to any rodeo.
Daiquiri is her prized goat tying horse. She was a steal as a 3-year-old for $500 out of a horse auction her uncle tipped her off to a few years ago.
“That’s a horse I kind of grew and learned with. Her first win was my first win,” Thompson said. “She’s definitely made her five hundred back ... and then some.”
For breakaway roping, Thompson has Foxy. She’ll saddle up Tom for heading. Thompson’s barrel racing/pole bending favorite Frosty has been put out to pasture, but she’s expected to foal this June.
Wyoming Work Ethic
Thompson is a natural, cowgirl through and through.
But what separates the 19-year-old from most other competitors is her work ethic. Her competitive level is off the charts and she is driven to grind harder than everyone else.
“I work my butt off. I've roped a million times. Because I know someone, somewhere is doing the same, trying to be better than me,” Thompson said. “When I get to Casper, I know a lot of [competitors] will be really, really nervous.
“I try not to be and I’m pretty good at that. Because no matter what that calf or goat is going to do, I trust my preparation. I know the end result.”
Gillette Dealt An Ace
“She’s a hand,” said Gillette College coach LaDuke.
In stoic cowboy parlance, that’s a gushing compliment. Truly.
LaDuke says he never ceases to be amazed with how self-motivated Thompson is.
“I mean, her work ethic ... she puts in the work. Haiden will not be outworked, I’ll tell you that,” LaDuke said. “And she doesn’t just concentrate on one event. She’s one of the best headers around — men included. You just don’t see that very often with the women.”
LaDuke tried to woo Thompson’s two older sisters without success. When Haiden committed to be a Pronghorn last year, the longtime coach knew he had someone special.
“We’re tickled to death that Haiden chose Gillette,” LaDuke added. “She’s obviously one of the most elite competitors I’ve ever seen, but the thing is, she is also a very good person. Her teammates love her, and all the girls are so supportive of each other.”
‘She’s Just Different’
Chuck Coon has been following and promoting the regional college rodeo scene for decades. He said he’s never seen anything like Thompson and the team spirit that has been built around the Pronghorns.
“She’s just different,” Coon said of Thompson. “And the whole team of girls. They’re small but mighty.
“Haiden carried this team for the first eight rodeos, then when she had a stretch of bad luck in the final two, those other girls picked her up. That’s what they do for each other. I’ve never seen anything quite like what they have going on this Gillette team.”
The team consists of just seven women. LaDuke has quietly built a quality rodeo program with a decided underdog mentality. This little two-year junior college should not be able to recruit and compete with larger four-year universities, yet it does.
“We strive for quality over quantity,” LaDuke said. “We turn a lot of kids away. We keep the program small by design because this is the number we can afford. It’s worked for us for 16 years now.”
Being small allows for intense bonds and more one-on-one time for each student-athlete. LaDuke said he likes his chances this year at the 2023 CNFR.
“We have the highest expectations. This is a national championship-caliber team with probably four of the best girls we’ve brought to nationals,” he said.
Thompson and company will set their sights on perennial powerhouse Oregon programs, top-ranked Treasure Valley Community College and No. 2 seed Blue Mountain Community College.
Thompson is ranked No. 3 in the country in the all-around. She’s been chasing top points-getter in the all-around Kennedy Buckner (Blue Mountain) and No. 2-ranked Samantha Kerns (Treasure Valley).
Downstate rival University of Wyoming women’s team finished ninth in the overall national standings.
Wyoming In The Mix
The UW women are in a bit of a rebuilding year, at least by their standards. Still, all-around cowgirl Sage Kohr — who calls Gillette home — can run barrels with the best of them and she topped the list of breakaway ropers, even Thompson, in this season’s standings.
Emme Norsworthy and Halle Hladky have also been turning in some impressive times running the cloverleaf pattern. Finally, Faith Hoffman has looked really strong as Thompson’s only competition in goat tying in regional events.
“UW has a very good girls’ team. Us and them would be the two schools representing Wyoming with complete girls’ teams,” LaDuke said.
What About The Men?
The men’s team at Wyoming is as good as it’s ever been. This team is deep and multi-talented.
Bareback rider Donny Proffit has been making some noise since turning pro with his PRCA card last year.
The 22-year-old is hitting every rodeo he can in addition to his college schedule. His 88-point ride on Breaking News at the Guymon Pioneer Days Rodeo last weekend was good enough for a $2,741 payout, solidifying Proffit at 31st in the Top 50 PRCA bareback riders.
Technically, Proffit is not UW’s top point-getter in the event. Brice Patterson finished slightly above Proffit in the year-end National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) standings. Either could win it all in Casper and both placed in the top 10 in the national standings.
The Pokes also have a very good steer wrestler in Jacob Wang.
Finally, UW cowboys took the top three spots in men’s all-around. John Jensen, Bodie Mattson and Rio Nutter. Mattson and Nutter were Nos. 1 and 2 in the CRMR from the header box, while Jensen topped the standings in tie-down roping.
University of Wyoming athletes will have to compete at CNFR next month without their head coach, Beau Clark, who abruptly announced his resignation earlier this week. Clark took over the UW rodeo program in 2018 after a stint at Laramie County Community College.
UW’s men’s rodeo team finished 22nd out of 49 teams in the 2022 CNFR. Gillette’s men were 30th. UW’s women’s team finished 12th last year out of 35 teams. The Gillette women took 16th.
Jake Nichols can be reached at: Jake@CowboyStateDaily.com