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National Champions crowned at CNFR; Baeza represents UNLV

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Every June for the past 16 years, the best collegiate rodeo athletes in the country converge on Casper, Wyoming for the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR). The culmination of a year of rodeo within 11 individual regions across the country, the CNFR offers the prestige of National Championships to the individual event winners and best teams in the country who have competed in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA), the governing body of college rodeo. In addition to the usual prize line of scholarships and awards, the winners in 2014 were also given an automatic bye into the semi-finals of RFD-TV's The American, a huge $2 million rodeo held in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas during the first weekend of March.

In 2014 the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) sent just one competitor to Casper as the team failed to qualify from West Coast Region action. UNLV Rodeo is actually the school's most decorated athletic squad with 15 individual and team National titles including one last season for steer wrestler Corey Rogers.

With the graduation of Rogers and several other top UNLV athletes in 2013, coaches Ric Griffith and Bryce Barnes coached a fairly young Rebel team in 2013-2014. Junior saddle bronc rider Tyler Baeza was the only Rebel to earn a position in Casper. Baeza punched his ticket by finishing third in his event in the West Coast Region.

Competing in his first CNFR June 15-21, 2014, Baeza managed a top ten finish in round two but was unable to secure a position in the Championship Round on June 21. Although all CNFR athletes get three go rounds of competition, only the top 12 in the average in each event compete on Saturday night, the Championship Round, for the National titles. Baeza will return to the Rebels roster in 2014-2015 for another chance.

In team competition, the University of Tennessee-Martin won the men's division while Central Arizona College (CAC), based in Florence, claimed the women's title.

CAC benefitted from the performance of Macy Fuller, who claimed the breakaway roping and All Around National titles. Fuller eked out the breakaway victory over reigning CNFR champion Kimberlyn Fitch who settled for second this year. Fuller finished second in the goat tying as well and also competed in the barrel racing, earning 555 points towards the All Around.

The men's All Around went to Taygen Schuelke of Sheridan College. Competing in the saddle bronc riding and bull riding, Schuelke earned 415 points to win the title. Schuelke won the final round of saddle bronc riding and finished third in the average to help cinch the All Around title.

Four CNFR champions actually repeated wins from a year ago. Bareback rider Orin Larsen transferred to Panhandle State University from the College of Southern Idaho but little changed otherwise. Larsen rode four horses for 316 points to edge out Richmond Champion by just 1.5 points for his second consecutive National Championship. Champion won $1 million at The American in its inaugural event in March 2013 but will have to find another means to qualify as Larsen will take the first exemption into the semi-finals.

“Feels great to go out last year and win a title and to do it back-to-back, it’s unbelievable,”Larsen told RFD-TV. “I couldn't be more blessed or more excited.”

As for his RFD-TV’s THE AMERICAN Semifinals Exemption, “I kind of forgot about it until I saw you guys [RFD-TV]. That’s a heck of a deal. I’m excited, can’t wait to be there,” he stated.

Team ropers Billy Bob Brown and Logan Medlin also claimed a second straight title. Brown rodeos for Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas while Medlin ropes out of Eastern New Mexico University. They too will have a bye into RFD-TV's The American next winter.

“We've sat at the house together multiple times and watched the reruns of (THE AMERICAN) and just talked about how awesome of an event it was. We wanted to be there and we have a chance now and it’s a blessing really,” said Brown.

Junior Hayden Segelke won two straight CNFR All Around titles from 2012-2013 for Northeastern Junior College. She transferred to Eastern New Mexico this season. Segelke gave her top barrel horse to her younger sister, opting to ride a more inexperienced horse in 2013-2014. Unfortunately, Segelke failed to qualify to Casper in the barrel racing but she did return in the goat tying and made the most of the opportunity.

Segelke tied four goats in 25.7 seconds, two tenths better than Fuller, to claim a third National title in three years.

In the saddle bronc riding, CoBurn Bradshaw of West Texas College earned 311 points on four horses to win the title and corresponding berth into The American. Bradshaw was also named the top rookie of the CNFR.

On the ladies side of the rookie chase, barrel racer Taylor Engesser took top honors after winning the barrel racing while competing for Gillette College. Engesser's tough horse Cool Rowdy traveled back and forth from Casper to Spearfish, site of the South Dakota High School Finals, during the week; the nineteen year old gelding not only took the National title at the CNFR but also won the SDHSF for Engesser's little sister Rickie. Rowdy will compete later this summer in the National High School Finals with Rickie and make a trip to Dallas for The American.

“I feel amazing. Actually, it hasn’t completely hit me yet, but it still feels great,” Engesser told RFD-TV. “I give all the credit to my horse, he’s amazing.”

Freshman Taylor Santos-Karney won the tie down roping in Casper. Santos-Karney represents Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He roped his four calves in 37 seconds flat.

“Riding in THE AMERICAN to me is like a world title. I can’t really fathom the idea,” Santos-Karney told RFD-TV. “I don’t think it’s soaked in yet fully. I’m going to darn sure go home and practice my all and try to be ready for those guys.”

Cade Goodman of Wharton Junior College collected the steer wrestling National title. Like Santos-Karney, Goodman is a freshman. He threw four steers in 21.3 seconds to earn the championship.

Joe Frost was the only bull rider to ride all four bulls during the week in Casper. He represents Panhandle State University but hails from Utah. This was his third CNFR.

The CNFR will air on ESPNU on August 15, 2014.

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