Team Roping at the NFR - 2015
By Kori Skurja
For nearly 60 years, the National Finals Rodeo has provided a melting pot of the most skilled professional rodeo athletes in the world competing for top payouts. Last year, Karl Stressman, PRCA Commissioner, reported that the 2014 WNFR total payouts would reach over 6 million dollars, a record number. As always, a new year brings with it new opportunities to break records and the WNFR has yet to disappoint. This year, for the first time, qualifiers not only received a $10,000.00 qualifying bonus, but also, the rare chance to take home their share of an 8.8 million-dollar purse. Higher payouts each round producing unpredictable leader changes in each event proved to provide the best show professional rodeo fans have ever seen.
In years past, the team roping at the WNFR has proven to be an event where multiple variables can change the standings in just seconds, but with the added money this year came a variable so great that it truly was anybody’s game. Coming into the 2015 Finals, over $60,000.00 separated the 1st place cowboy from 15th. That number may sound intimidating, but an event where one round win brings in over $25,000.00, the difference between 1st and 15th is merely three round wins, an attainable goal for the best in the world.
Attempting to summarize 10 rounds of world class team roping is about like trying to sum up the Las Vegas Strip itself. With its grandeur architecture, bright lights, and exciting entertainment, it’s not easily put into words —but here we go… 2014 Team Roping World Champions Clay Tryan and Jade Corkill were seemingly well on their way to a 3rd consecutive world championship title, but earning a money winning spot in just 3 of 10 rounds with no round wins, their lead was quickly surpassed. Derrick Begay and Clay O’Brien Cooper came in at the #2 spot. But, winning Rounds 2 and 4, splitting 1st and 2nd in Round 5, and taking 3rd in both Rounds 9 and 10 was still not enough to clench the world title. Continuing on, we saw JoJo LeMond and Junior Nogueira in an unlikely match-up. JoJo, ranking 16th in the world and just missing the cutoff as December quickly approached, was offered the opportunity to rope with Junior after a devastating accident took living legend, Jake Barnes, out of the competition just days before it’s onset. Despite the disappointing circumstances, JoJo and Junior found their rhythm quickly and earned paychecks in a staggering 8 of 10 rounds, an impressive Finals showing, but still not enough to take home the coveted gold buckle. Understanding the magnitude of higher round payouts and a quickly changing leader board, each of the fifteen teams backed into the box with one goal in mind—catch. A clean run meant payday, and a good payday meant climbing the ladder towards a gold buckle.
So who was able to rise to the occasion and leave Las Vegas as the newest members of the world championship club? Two world-class cowboys, from two separate teams. Taking home the 2015 PRCA Team Roping Header gold buckle was Aaron Tsinigine (29) of Tuba City, AZ and taking home the 2015 PRCA Heeler gold buckle was Kollin VonAhn (32) of Durant, OK. We had the opportunity of talking with both cowboys about their 2015 seasons, championship wins and the surprising finale to the title race.
Aaron Tsinigine joined the PRCA in 2007, and qualified for his first WNFR in 2014 with partner Clay O’Brien Cooper. In the money at events throughout the western United States during his 2015 season ranging from the Cody Stampede in Cody, WY to the Wrangler Champions Challenge in Logandale, Nevada, Tsinigine brought home 5 event wins and his total earnings landed him in the 5th place slot for the 2015 WNFR, partnering with 4-time WNFR Qualifier, Ryan Motes.
Tsinigine had one thing on his mind as the Finals quickly approached. “In the Thomas & Mack [Arena] things can go wrong so easily,” he said, “and you got to be prepared for any situation. The biggest thing for me was just getting the feel from the corner of the box to roping the steer and just finding a rhythm.” The week before the onset of the Finals, Tsinigine took his best horse and ran 5 steers a day, coming out of the corner, catching clean, and following them down the arena, looking for it to feel just right. “I felt like I really couldn’t get that rhythm going when I left for the Finals… I was still a little behind and I tried hard to get everything right, but [it] wasn’t feeling the way I wanted it to,” he admitted. He continued on to explain, in spite of his frustration, “I had a lot of confidence and when I got to Las Vegas…when that first round [came], that’s when everything was just a lot easier than the way I made it [before].” Easier is right, Tsinigine and Motes found their rhythm and won Round 1 with a fast time of 4.1 seconds. Despite a few hiccups in the rounds to follow, they were able to catch a total 9 of 10 head, adding wins in Rounds 3, 6 and 10, to their 2015 Finals portfolio.
With a 4th place Average finish bringing in over $30,000.00 alone, not to mention their go-round earnings totaling over $100,000.00, it would seem all too easy to get caught up in the money, but that wasn’t the case for this team. “It’s great that they added the money in there,” Tsinigine explained, “but whether the money is there or not, we got to do our job,” and that meant coming back each night regrouped and focused on staying in the Average. Outside of the arena, Tsinigine relied on conversations with mentors like Kyle Lockett and Jake Barnes to refocus and prepare for the day ahead.
Inside the arena, he relied on his partner, Ryan Motes, whose contribution to Tsinigine’s world title was unmistakable. With a partner as valuable as Motes, Tsinigine explained the emotions that came with a split-team championship. “[Ryan] and his family were all happy for me. [But] Ryan’s been in this business a lot longer than I have; he’s a lot better guy. I think he really deserved it and I wanted him to win it more than I did.”
Heading into 2016, Tsinigine and Motes aim to continue together, admitting that they never have a game plan, “We just enter up, back into the box, and do our job… Every time I ask [Motes] ‘what do you think about this situation, what do you think we should do?’ the only response he ever gives me is ‘Well, I like winning first.’ “ It’s fair to say with a 2015 season like theirs, the plan appears to be working.
Joining the PRCA just one year before Tsinigine, Kollin VonAhn made his professional rodeo debut in 2006. With 2015 marking his 5th WNFR Qualification and his 2nd World Title, VonAhn is no stranger to the pressure or the spotlight. Winning big events during the 2015 season like the Wrangler Champions Challenge Finale in Omaha, NE and the “Daddy of ‘em All,” Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, VonAhn made it clear that he had one destination in mind—Las Vegas, NV.
Returning to the Thomas & Mack Arena with partner, Luke Brown, for the second consecutive year, VonAhn’s confidence was high. “We did practice hard, but we didn’t try to fix anything that wasn’t broken,” he explained. “We were just really trying to go out there and have fun and see what was going to happen, and I did believe we were going to do really well.” He was right. Each night, VonAhn and Brown inched their way towards winning the Average. It wasn’t until Round 8 that VonAhn seemingly sealed his fate. “Round 8 we had a really good steer…I wasn’t going to try to win the round, I just wanted to keep doing our job like we’d been doing.” He continued, “After Round 8 was kind of a sigh of relief for me. We [were] going to have a respectable Finals no matter what.”
A “Respectable Finals” is an understatement. Going 10 for 10 and in turn, winning the Average, VonAhn and Brown achieved what many teams can only dream of. Go-round earnings and a 1st Place Average paycheck landed them at a total Finals payout of just over $140,000 and, in a strange turn of events, a world championship title for only one of the team members. As VonAhn walked away with a gold buckle, he met mixed emotions in the face of a split-team championship title. “You know I was plum tickled for Aaron [Tsinigine], he ropes great and deserved to win it,” VonAhn admitted. “ [But] I kind of felt like it should be a team deal, because, you know, neither one of us would have been there without our partners. And then knowing too that they put in just as much work… You feel like the guy that helped you win it, should be there with you.” Unfortunately, we won’t have the opportunity of seeing VonAhn and Brown for a third consecutive year. VonAhn plans to head into the 2016 season with new partner Colby Lovell, who finished out the 2015 season ranking 6th in the World Standings. “Me and Luke, we had a great partnership and I loved roping with him, it was a good deal I think for both of us… we just decided we were going to do something different this year and so I’m kind of excited to see what my year’s going to be like with Colby… I think it’ll be fun to watch.”
With both Tsinigine and VonAhn each bringing in over $100,000.00 in 10 short days, it’s clear that the increased payouts made for a good rodeo. VonAhn explained that the added money actually relieved some of the pressure, allowing for more focus and, in turn, a better competition. “No matter what,” he stated, “you can go out there and make a living for yourself and your family… Everybody who ropes at this level wants to have a chance to win a title at the end of it and if you do your job and work yourself through it, you’re going to get that chance. For me, that’s a perfect rodeo—that’s what I love about it.”