Reigning World Champion Header Clay Smith will rope with Jade Corkill, and plans to ride his gray horse, Marty. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo


On the brink of the 2019 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which this year runs December 5-14, the field is set. Rodeo’s Super Bowl will light up Las Vegas with the Top 15 in the world in each event battling it out for the ultimate reward—strapping on a gold buckle. After duking it out during the regular season, the top rodeo athletes on the planet will ante up and go all-in for 10 straight nights.

   From first-timers to savvy, veteran world champs, we take a look inside the Top 15 team roping teams that have earned the opportunity to saddle up at this year’s National Finals.
   This year’s NFR roster includes a combined 13 team roping gold buckles belonging to seven guys. Clay Tryan, Chad Masters, Matt Sherwood, Clay Smith, Erich Rogers, Jade Corkill and Paul Eaves all return with gold strapped on their belts. Of course reigning World Champions Clay Smith and Paul Eaves are back, however each is roping with a new partner. Smith will be heading for Corkill, who has world titles stamped 2012-2014, and Eaves will heel for three-time NFR average champion Luke Brown.
   Three-time World Champion Header Clay Tryan is back for his 17th NFR appearance—which leads this year’s cowboy crop— and will team up with Jake Long for the 2019 Finals and 2020 season. Tryan is also a two-time NFR average champ (2004 and 2014).
   Masters, who’s twice been crowned the world champion header, holds the second most NFR qualifications at this year’s NFR at 13, and is tied with Luke Brown for the most NFR average titles of this year’s team ropers at three apiece. Chad’ll head for Joseph Harrison.
   Sherwood will make his sixth appearance in Vegas, winning the world in both of his first two NFR trips. He will head for NFR freshman Hunter Koch, and they’re coming off of a major recent win as the 2019 Canadian Professional Rodeo Association champions. Sherwood—50— is the oldest competitor in this year’s team roping qualifiers. Koch is the youngest heeler to make the NFR this year at age 22. The only younger team roper this year is 20-year-old NFR-rookie header and 2018 Resistol Rookie of the Year Brenten Hall.
   The 2017 World Champion Header, Erich Rogers, will nod his head on opening night at his eighth-consecutive NFR for California’s Kyle Lockett. Lockett, the oldest heeler in the field at age 42, makes his first NFR appearance since sticking closer to home following the 2005 Finals. This year marks his eighth NFR heeling qualification.
   There is a 14th gold buckle belonging to this year’s team roping gang, and that would the one Junior Nogueira won when he was crowned the 2016 world champion all-around cowboy. While Nogueira hopes to add a heeling buckle to his collection, Clay Smith has his sights set on both a second team roping title and his first world all-around championship, as he enters this year’s NFR second in the world all-around standings to 2019 NFR-rookie bull rider Stetson Wright.
   There’s a set of new faces at this year’s NFR on both ends. Headers Hall and Tate Kirchenschlager will make their first lap around the Thomas & Mack at opening night’s grand entry. Hall will head for three-time NFR qualifier Chase Tryan. Kirchenschlager will head for fellow Finals freshman Tyler Worley. Koch and Caleb Anderson, who will heel for Jake Cooper, join Worley as NFR rookies amongst this year’s heelers. For Cooper, it will be his third NFR.
   As for most NFR qualifications at this year’s Finals on the heeling side of things, both Brady Minor and Travis Graves lead the pack with 11 NFR back numbers. Minor will assume the heeling duties for his younger brother, Riley. Graves will heel for Ty Blasingame.
Just prior to this year’s NFR, I had the chance to talk with a few of the front-runners and first-timers, as we get ready to settle in on the 2019 National Finals Rodeo. Here’s what they had to say less than 20 days shy of opening night.

• Clay Smith
Hometown: Broken Bow,
Oklahoma
Age: 28
NFR Qualifications: 5 (2015-19)
Partner: Jade Corkill
Lane Karney: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Clay Smith: I’m going to ride my gray, Marty (12). He is pretty fast-footed and in that little set-up, I think Marty can get turned around and finish pretty snappy. He has been really good for me out there before.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
CS: Our deal is to try to catch all 10. That’s definitely it. I feel like if we catch and make our run, we can win something every night, but we don’t want to beat ourselves. We want to catch steers.
LK: What’s your pre-NFR practice regimen been like?
CS: Ours is probably a little bit different than most. We don’t practice going fast a whole lot. I’ve got one practice horse I don’t mind going fast on, but we have just been roping. We’ve got a good set of strong steers. We have gone at a few, but really just roping and roping some slow ones, too. When I first started riding Marty out there, I set up the dimensions (of the Thomas & Mack) and the left fence, but I’m not doing that. We’ve just been roping a lot.  
LK: What does being the regular-season leader mean to you?
CS: I think it’s pretty cool. I hadn’t kept track of it, but Jade said something toward the end that I could break the regular-season record. I didn’t really know what it was, but at the end he told me I did. It’s a cool deal. They give you a little bonus when you get to Vegas for coming in number one. It means a lot, but it doesn’t really matter. Where you’re at after Round 10 is the main thing.


Jade Corkill is a three-time champ of the world, and after some time away is all-in again. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo

• Jade Corkill
Hometown: Fallon, Nevada
Age: 32
NFR Qualifications: 10 (2008-15, 2017, 2019)
Partner: Clay Smith
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Jade Corkill: I’m planning on riding my sorrel I call Huey (10). He’s been hurt since the first of October, but I’ve been riding him some again now and he feels like he’s good to go. If not, I’ll ride my gray that I bought from Clay Cooper in July that I call Champ.
LK: How does your approach to this year’s Finals compare to years past?
JC: I feel like my approach this year is easier, because I’ve been there enough to know what to expect. I’m just making sure my horses and myself are in shape and ready to go when it gets here.
LK: What sticks out about your 2019 regular season?
JC: I’d say what sticks out the most about this season was how easy it was. What I mean by that is there wasn’t one time that I felt like my partner doubted me or I doubted him. We had a lot of fun while trying to win, and that is what makes or breaks it to me. As soon as there’s tension. it’s just a matter of time before it goes bad.


Kaleb Driggers will be back in Vegas with Junior Nogueira, and plans to press pretty aggressively start to finish. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo

• Kaleb Driggers
Hometown: Albany, Georgia
Age: 29 (Driggers will turn 30 on December 19, just after the NFR ends.)
NFR Qualifications: 8 (2011-14, 2016-19)
Partner: Junior Nogueira
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Kaleb Driggers: I’m going to ride Yahtzee (15), which is the gray I got from Dustin Bird and won The American on (with Patrick Smith in 2014, which was Driggers’ first of three American wins). I’m taking a yellow horse I got from Bubba Buckaloo as a backup. I’m going to take a few other horses with me for some jackpots on our way out to Vegas.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
KD: The one thing I’ve gone out there thinking the past few times is to turn all 10 steers. It seems like I always do better at the end of the week than the start. I think I get a little more settled in and focused, and rope a little more aggressive later in the week. This year, I’m going to really try to start as focused as I usually end and be a little more aggressive the whole time. I want to be as aggressive as I can without running over myself.
LK: What’s your pre-NFR practice regimen been like?
KD: It’s been cold and a little wet, so it’s been a little hit and miss. But we will get to running about 50-60 steers a day. We’ll probably go at about 20 of them pretty realistically for out there, and make some sharp jackpot runs.


Junior Nogueira has a gold all-around buckle, but wants the world team roping title in a big way. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images

• Junior Nogueira
Hometown: Presidente
Prudente, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Age: 29
NFR Qualifications: 6 (2014-19)
Partner: Kaleb Driggers
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Junior Nogueira: I’m not sure yet, but I’ll probably ride a young horse I’ve got that I call Timon (8) like off the Lion King. I really started riding him at the Spicer Gripp Memorial Roping (where Driggers and Nogueira won the roping for the second year in a row), Dodge City and Phillipsburg, Kansas, in August. From there, I rode him a lot the rest of the season and he did pretty dang good. I’ve never taken him to the NFR, but I’m really leaning toward him. I’ll take Green Card (13) out there, too. That’s my black horse I’ve ridden out there the last four years.
LK: How does your approach to this year’s Finals compare to years past?
JN: Every year changes a little bit. The horse change would be the biggest change. I’ve been working on my roping a little bit, just little things. We’re going to try to go at them a little more out there this year. The average is important, but we are going at it more like a one-header every night.
LK: What does being the regular-season leader mean to you? This is your fourth-straight year doing so.
JN: I was planning to make it and be in the top five or six. I didn’t want to be too far behind the leaders going in. Whoever has the best Finals is probably going to win the world, but it’s something special. I don’t know how many people have done it that many times. I’m sure guys like Clay (O’Brien Cooper) and Rich (Skelton) have, but it wasn’t a goal. It’s all in God’s time, and I enjoy rodeoing full time. It’s a blessing to be in the Top 15, but going in number one is a total bonus.


Coleman Proctor is heading for Ryan Motes, and they’re planning on gunning for the gold buckles. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo

• Coleman Proctor
Hometown: Pryor, Oklahoma
Age: 34
NFR Qualifications: 5 (2014-17, 2019)
Partner: Ryan Motes
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Coleman Proctor: The starter is the only one I’ve confirmed. I’m going to ride my little bay I call Heisman (10) that I won The American on this year. I told my wife to not let me ride anything else when the start is 4’ under. I’m either going to take my yellow horse I call Admiral or a young horse named Jesse James out there as a second horse.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
CP: To win the world. I’ve had slow starts out there a lot. It’s taken me ’til about rounds four and five to get going, but we are going to try to get on a roll early on. It’s fun to be back, after not roping out there last year. I guess a goal is to win the Ram Top Gun Award (which goes to the contestant who wins the most money in any single event at the NFR), and the rest will take care of itself.
LK: What’s your pre-NFR practice regimen been like?
CP: I kind of felt like I got started late this year, but I think we’ve been on schedule as far as the NFR practice. I’ve got a good friend—Griffin Passmore—who let me set up the arena in his indoor. Being in Oklahoma and Motes being in Texas makes it a little difficult, but I’ve had some guys coming over and have gotten to practice with Ryan some. It’s such a balance of keeping your good horses good, but doing it on them enough they feel sharp. Basically, I’ve just been roping every day and staying sharp.


Ryan Motes, roping here on Rocky, plans to ride his old faithful, Starbucks, who’s 21 now, at the NFR. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo
• Ryan Motes

Hometown: Weatherford, Texas
Age: 39
NFR Qualifications: 5 (2007, 2012-13, 2015, 2019)
Partner: Coleman Proctor
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Ryan Motes: I’m going to ride Starbucks (21, who was the 2013 AQHA/PRCA Heel Horse of the Year). He’s always been really good in that building. I have ridden him every year I’ve been there. He scores really good, he’s quick and finishes really, really good.
LK: How does your approach to this year’s Finals compare to years past?
RM: The first year I made it I was just happy to be there. This year, we started the year with more of a set goal. Last time I went I just missed winning the world (Motes heeled for 2015 World Champion Aaron Tsinigine that year, and was the reserve world champion to Kollin VonAhn by just under $5,000), and now it’s my goal and really the reason to keep rodeoing. So my goal has been the biggest change. For the most part, in the past, we’ve gone out there and roped and saw how it went. Now we are trying to get off to a good start right off the bat. It’s easier to win something earlier on in the week, so we’ll be a little more aggressive on the first few and go on from there. I’ve never been past the second round and not won a round. That’s always been my approach, because to be in the race you’ve got to win pretty big at some point. If you are just getting by early, even if you’re good in the average, you’ve got to try to blast some at the end. If you win early, you’re a little more in control of your own destiny.
LK: With the big win at The American, how did that affect your regular season?
RM: It allowed us to back off on the all-night travel. That’s how we eased off. I still went everywhere and went to the Northwest, but it allowed us to skip a few of the ones that are hard to get to. I wouldn’t say I was home way more, but we got to spend a little less time in the truck than usual.


Two-time World Champion Header Matt Sherwood, 50, will spin for Finals freshman Hunter Koch, 22. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo
• Matt Sherwood

Hometown: Pima, Arizona
Age: 50
NFR Qualifications: 6 (2006, 2008, 2011, 2015-16, 2019)
Partner: Hunter Koch
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Matt Sherwood: I’ll either ride the sorrel mare—Murphy (14)— that I rode a lot this year or Bert McGill’s black horse. I rode Murphy at the Canadian Finals the other day. I’ve practiced on Bert’s horse a couple times, and he’s felt really good, too.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
MS: I want to turn 10 steers, so I’m going to try to get a good start and give myself a good throw at all 10 steers. Obviously you have to be fast, but try to make 10 consistent runs.
LK: You’re the oldest NFR team roping qualifier in this year’s field. You’re roping with the youngest NFR heeler this year. What’s your advice to the NFR rookies?
MS: My advice would be that we worked all year to make the NFR. Don’t sit back and take a deep breath and think, “I made it.” Try to keep the same focus you had all year, and that feeling of needing to win. You’re one of the best in the world. If you rope as good as you roped all year, you have just as good a chance to win as the veterans.


Finals first-timer Brenten Hall will be bringing it for Chase Tryan on his bay horse, Time Bomb. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images Photo

• Brenten Hall
Hometown: Jay, Oklahoma
Age: 20
NFR Qualifications: 1 (2019)
Partner: Chase Tryan
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Brenten Hall: I’m going to ride my bay, Time Bomb (10). He is real fast, strong and flat across the line. He’s strong up the wall, and we get a good finish on him every time.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
BH: I think go at every steer as fast as each steer will let us. We aren’t going in there just to win the average. We are going to go at ’em, and of course hopefully catch 10. But we aren’t going to back off to try to do that.
LK: This being your first time making the NFR, what have you done to feel ready for those 10 days?
BH: I have been coming over to Motes’ and going at ’em. He’s got about 60 steers, and we’ve been going at it every day. I made the Canadian Finals in 2018, so I feel like I have used roping there as a little bit of an idea of what it will be like. I know it’s not the same, but I feel good about it going in.


Finals freshman Tyler Worley plans to keep it simple, and make sharp, snappy runs. – Kirt Steinke/Western Rodeo Images

• Tyler Worley
Hometown: Berryville, Arkansas
Age: 26
NFR Qualifications: 1 (2019)
Partner: Tate Kirchenschlager
LK: What horse are you planning to start out on?
Tyler Worley: I’m going to ride my sorrel I bought from Hawk (Chase Tryan) that I call Bon Jovi (10). As soon as I tried him, I really liked him. I started riding him at Heber City, Utah, the first part of August. He’s easy and he’s really fast. Everybody has told me you’re going to feel like you can’t get far enough down the arena there, and that’s exactly what he wants to do. He wants to get down the arena and still does a good job getting to the inside. He’s the best one I’ve ever had, and is the one that really helped me make the Finals, so I owe it to him to start on him.
LK: What’s your team’s game plan going into the Finals?
TW: Tate has a couple of really good horses. He wants to get within a coil back and I’m going to try to leave them in the middle and give him some room. We don’t want to do anything stupid. Hopefully, just have them out in the middle and make sharp runs.
LK: This being your first time making the NFR, what have you done to feel ready for those 10 days?
TW: We have been practicing a lot. I’ve got three heel horses, and we’ve been roping nearly every day. We kind of started after the Capitalist (Roping, which was hosted by Driggers and held October 24). Then I was splitting wood and a piece of wood flew back and hit my knuckle on my right index finger. It swelled up and the palm of my hand turned purple, so I took a little time off. But once I felt like I could rope again, we’ve been getting after it.

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