Roping royalty: Moffat County rodeo sends three to national events
It was a wet and wild weekend for competitors at Moffat County Fairgrounds as precipitation kept hitting the arena and made the dirt the consistency of chocolate pudding.
But even with their struggles in the final week of the state circuit, several local competitors will see one more big event coming this summer.
The Colorado State High School Rodeo Association State Finals saw athletes from around the state come to Craig during the Memorial Day weekend with the best cowboys and cowgirls qualifying for the national finals.
Among those attending the national rodeo June 19-25 in Perry, Georgia, for junior high, and July 17-23 in Gillette, Wyoming, for high school will be Craig’s Katie Jo Knez, Chance Knez and Myka Grajeda.
Breakouts in breakaway
Katie Jo Knez and Grajeda will each be national competitors in breakaway roping, with Katie Jo placing third at the high school level and Grajeda the state runner-up among junior high girls.
Grajeda won both the opening day of competition in girls breakaway, as well as the short round Monday, with plentiful points in the all-around and average boosting her season standings.
“Breakaway, I almost ran my personal best on the first day,” she said. “I was very happy with myself.”
For Katie Jo, the first two days were great as she placed second in the opening round and won the event Sunday, though a rougher go in the short round with no points prevented her from winning it all.
She noted that she has steadily improved in breakaway even though it wasn’t her specialty from the start.
“It was tough in the fall because I kept breaking the barrier, but I finally got it figured out and moved up the standings in the past couple rodeos and then had a great weekend here,” she said. “I used to be a nervous wreck, but now I feel like I go in the box and know what I’m doing. I don’t think about it too much. I just do my job.”
As a former middle school state champion in goat tying, Katie Jo was also looking to qualify in the top four in that discipline but finished sixth.
“It was an off day for me, but we’ve got to have those to make us better,” she said.
The soon-to-be Moffat County High School junior added there can be some variety with goats compared to the calves used in breakaway.
“Every rodeo you have goats that just stand there or goats that are crazy or small or some that are 80 pounds,” she said. “With breakaway, you just gotta catch it fast and hopefully you have a fast horse.”
Even so, the Knez family will have a national competitor who works with goats. Katie Jo’s younger brother Chance made the cut for the next big event with fourth place in boys goat tying for junior high.
He recorded points in each of the three days with his best result being a third-place finish in the first round. Katie Jo noted she has helped her brother somewhat, though his success this year has been from his own hard work.
“I definitely push him my hardest, and sometimes he listens to me and sometimes he doesn’t,” she laughed.
Grajeda, who recently finished eighth grade and will start high school this fall, also qualified for junior high nationals in barrel racing, during which she finished third overall in the standings this weekend, placing fourth or better in every round.
She was also the fastest girl of the weekend, with a combined 55.404 across three days to give her the win in the points average.
Grajeda noted she’s been competing in barrels since she was 4 and found even greater success with a different equine partner named Junior for that event.
“We started clicking and getting better and better,” she said. “I use Junior for barrels, and Toby is my all-around horse for breakaway and poles and team roping.”
Grajeda barely missed national qualification for pole bending after she knocked down two poles in the short go, despite a win in the event keeping her high in the rankings.
She also competed in the junior high ribbon roping and team roping, though both were more difficult. Her final round in the latter event Monday also involved a sudden burst of precipitation that didn’t help.
“It was pretty nasty hail. There’s lots of pressure in team roping because I know I can catch, and I never do when I’m out in the rodeo, but I can always do it when I’m in the practice pen,” she said.
The wet conditions on the final two days were enough for Katie Jo to back out of high school barrel racing entirely.
“It was like competing in a pool,” she said of the arena. “I wanted to focus on my two strong events, so I drew out of the barrel race since the ground was bad and I needed to keep my mind set on the things I love the most.”
Just missed the cut
Moffat County had multiple athletes at the state event, some of whom were close to going to nationals.
Craig’s Jolene Rhyne was only one point out of fourth place in the high school goat tying, though she had a solid run in the short go Monday, winning the round altogether.
Jolene competed at the junior high nationals last summer in barrels, goats and ribbon roping, winning a state championship in the ribbon roping.
Likewise, Hamilton’s Logan Durham was hoping to continue his middle school success in bull riding, in which he won multiple state titles.
However, the high school circuit has been a little tougher, and he struggled to record a time in any of the three rounds this weekend.
Finishing sixth for the season, Durham expected high school competition to be more stiff, partly because of the animals.
“They’re a lot better quality, I think, but I’ve been getting on open bulls since I was 12,” he said.
The bad weather didn’t help, though he didn’t blame the mud it created.
“Storms always make the animals a little crazier,” he said. “I just keep riding as best as I can and stick with it.”
Elsewhere, Craig’s Cylee Dunsmore finished 22nd in high school pole bending and 30th in barrels, while Jesse Grajeda placed 15th in both junior high boys goats and breakaway roping.
In his first year of high school events following junior high nationals last summer, Maybell’s Cactus Barnes finished tied for 18th in team roping and 32nd in tie down roping.
Moffat County had senior athlete in the arena this weekend, with Craig’s Pepper Rhyne on the cusp of going to nationals.
The Monday short round saw him win the team roping for the day alongside partner Seth Anderson of Larkspur, with the two finishing the season ranked seventh.
“That was one of my only good runs this weekend, it was a rough one,” he said.
However, Pepper’s focus was on the tie down, where he had been hovering around fifth. After two unsuccessful rounds, he burst out of the gate in the short go, captured his calf and completed the task with a time of 10.81, which would have won him second place for the round.
Unfortunately, he got an extra 10 seconds tacked on for breaking the barrier and finished eighth in the round and sixth in the season.
The recent MCHS graduate was disappointed but took pride in a season that saw him competing strong each week against many other worthy cowboys.
“I rodeoed real good this spring, but there were a lot of tough kids in the tie down this year,” he said. “I was able to keep myself in it, only two points out of it heading into this weekend, and I was right there in that race.”
One more big event
For the rodeo athletes who will be going to nationals, the season is not over.
Grajeda said she’s well aware of the caliber of competition she’ll be seeing in Georgia.
“I’m going to have to be on my A game because there are going to be some really good girls there,” she said. “I’ll be practicing all the way up until it’s time to go.”
Likewise, Katie Jo is ready for the big time. Besides riding and roping at the junior high nationals in years past, she qualified for the high school event last year before giving up her slot to a senior who had narrowly missed nationals in their final year of eligibility.
This summer will be a different story.
“I’m beyond excited, but it’s just another rodeo for me,” she said. “I can’t get too stressed out or I’m going to mess up, but it’s going to go good.”
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