Moffat County rodeo athletes ride high with state wins, national qualification

Andy Bockelman
For Craig Press
Chance Knez competes in the team roping event at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association state event Friday at the Moffat County Fairgrounds.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

After the dust settled Monday afternoon at Moffat County Fairgrounds, rodeo athletes from around the state were holding high some big prizes and making plans for even bigger events this summer.

And yes, local kids were in the mix.

Multiple Moffat County competitors are heading to the national finals after strong showings at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association state event held in Craig across Memorial Day weekend.

Big shooter

While the majority of rodeo events were held at the fairgrounds, Craig’s Kaden Cox was hard at work north of town in the rifle shoot at Bears Ears Sportsman Club, the first round of which took place Thursday.

With a score of 278 in the opening round, he took sixth place on the day before improving to 305 Friday and third place. The Saturday morning final go was a 288 and fourth place on the day, giving him third place in the scoring average for the state event as well as third place overall in the final standings.

Kaden Cox reloads as he competes in the shooting event at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association state event Friday at the Bear Ears Sportsman Club.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

With the top four qualifying for the national rodeo event in July, Cox will be part of the Colorado rifle team heading to Lincoln, Nebraska.

What’s more, he’ll also be part of a new group for the Centennial State as the state champion in trap shooting. CSHSRA introduced the discipline to its lineup this year, and though there was only a single trap competition, Cox walked away the winner after the contest earlier this season in Penrose.

“I’m more of a natural trap shooter. I’ve always liked that, and I find it a little more fun because you know your score right off the bat,” he said.

Rifle shooters at the state finals shot from a distance of 50 yards in standing, crouching and prone positions. For Cox, there was no doubt which he preferred.

“Prone, by far,” he chuckled. “You’re the most rested in that one.”

A week before the rodeo wrap-up, Cox graduated from Moffat County High School with plans to become an electrical lineman.

A lifelong firearms enthusiast, he noted that he took up competitive shooting as an MCHS junior with CSHSRA due to his appreciation for the Second Amendment, and his only regret is not getting involved in it sooner.

“If I’d started earlier, I might have done some more of the rodeo stuff too,” he said.

Nothing junior about them

Area middle school students represented Moffat County well during the state finals, with two championship belt buckles.

Well, technically three.

With only four bull riders in the junior high rankings this weekend, Hamilton’s Logan Durham was guaranteed to move on to the junior high nationals — taking place later this month in Des Moines, Iowa — but the Craig Middle School eighth-grader was more than ready to take another state title, the first of which he won in Craig in 2019.

Though Monte Vista’s Benjamin Sittler had a better first day at state to threaten the season point count, Logan stayed seated on his bulls each day, winning the second round as well as the short go and the event average to claim another overall win.

Cactus Barnes competes in the tie down event at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association state event Friday at the Moffat County Fairgrounds.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

Craig’s Jolene Rhyne was likewise ready to hold on to the high placement she had heading into state, with ribbon roping one of her better events. Her Elbert partner, Nathan Lammers, received a buckle with Rhyne.

Though the duo wasn’t in the lead at the start of things, they overtook Yuma siblings Cash and Cassidy Evans in the point count, with wins in the first and final rounds to win both the state average and the championship.

With Lammers throwing a loop over the calf, Jolene’s responsibility was to snatch a ribbon from the animal’s tail and sprint back to the starting line. Though getting kicked in the face by a thrashing bovine was a possibility, she wasn’t too worried about it.

“A couple of my friends have gotten kicked, but I never have. I’ve gotten close,” she said. “My mom always reminds me to be aggressive, so if something like that does happen, I can just continue to go.”

Jolene also qualified for nationals in the girls goat tying, tying for third place overall with a ranking of sixth the first round and seventh the second before a no-time in the short go. Placing as highly as third across three days of barrel racing, she will also be going to nationals in barrel racing after finishing No. 3 in the state.

She had also hoped to make the cut for pole bending, but knocking over a pole for a time penalty in her final run dropped her to fifth place overall.

“I had a couple goals in mind that I didn’t quite reach, but I’m still so happy to qualify for nationals,” she said. “It was a great weekend.”

Though not taking on as many events, Craig’s Myka Grajeda focused her attention on the pure horseback events of barrel racing and pole bending. In barrels, her best result was fourth place in the second round, finishing eighth overall in the state, while in poles she placed fourth and fifth in the first two rounds, seventh in the average count, ultimately ending the season ranked 11th.

For the middle school boys, Maybell’s Cactus Barnes and Craig’s Chance Knez were in many events.

An opening night win for Barnes in the chute dogging saw him get physical with a feisty young steer, bringing the beast right down on top of himself while fighting it onto the ground to get a time of 2.8 seconds. Though he couldn’t catch up in total points, he placed third in dogging for a ticket to nationals.

Barnes will also be at nationals for tie down roping, ranked third by the end of state, his best run second place in the first round.

Barnes noted that the difference in animals’ size and speed in each event is important to keep in mind.

“These steers are slow, you’ve gotta wait to let them all the way out,” Barnes said. “The chute dogging is usually about smaller steers.”

Barnes just missed out on nationals for team roping, placing fifth overall, and boys goats, taking sixth.

“Goats is not really my greatest,” he said.

Knez was in a similar situation in both events, ranked just after Barnes in goats with seventh — taking fourth place in both the first and final rounds — while in boys breakaway he placed as highly as second in state rounds to finish eighth in the final rankings.

Myka Grajeda competes in the pole bending event at the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association state event Friday at the Moffat County Fairgrounds.
Andy Bockelman / For the Craig Press

Though he won’t be heading to Des Moines this summer, Knez is ready to keep working to make it happen for next year.

“I’m going to especially practice in goats and breakaway because I kind of just clicked on breakaway. In goats, I’m just getting faster and faster slowly,” he said. “I’ll just keep practicing.”

On the way to the big time

Moffat County featured fewer competitors in the arena for high school events, but the three that were at it were doing well.

Amid a tough season, Craig’s Pepper Rhyne had an excellent run Sunday in the second round of team roping as he and partner Coy Evans of Yuma lassoed first place for the day.

The header to Evans’ heeler, Pepper caught his calf around the neck perfectly to make a time of 8.03 seconds.

The good opening round wasn’t enough to come close to national qualification — the duo finishing the season ranked 12th by the end of it — but Pepper was closer in the tie down, placing ninth for the season, his overall score seeing a boost with a second-place finish in the short go.

While Pepper will be cheering on sister Jolene at the junior high nationals, he won’t be the only older sibling doing so.

Hamilton’s Clay Durham will also be on the way to nationals alongside younger brother Logan, finishing the season fourth in bull riding.

While Clay struggled to record a score during the state bull rides, successful runs earlier in the season secured him a slot for the next big thing for the recent MCHS graduate.

As the only MCHS athlete in the girls events, Craig’s Katie Jo Knez was engaged in the breakaway roping, team roping and goat tying.

And, to no one’s surprise, the latter event was her best outcome.

Katie Jo was the 2019 state champ in junior high goats, a buckle honor she won in front of a home crowd.

At the high school level, it’s been a little tougher in terms of the field of athletes.

“There was a lot more competition, a lot more experienced girls, but I learned a lot,” Knez said.

Though she was too far behind in the total points count to get a title in goats, she was undaunted by the top contenders and ended the first day with a win. The next round was rougher as she placed eighth, but she finished strong with third place for the short go round, tying for third overall on the season.

After being unable to compete much at all in spring and summer of 2020 during the COVID pandemic, being back at state and nationals was something she enjoyed all the more.

“I loved having state in Craig, and it makes me feel good to compete in front of people I know,” she said. “I’m so glad it all got back to normal.”

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