It's almost playoff time in college rodeo.

Say what?

A new wrinkle in the postseason format gives added incentive to hands at the University of Montana rodeo, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Western Montana Fairgrounds.

The Missoula rodeo is the finale of the Big Sky Region season. In years past, if a contestant wasn't on one of the top two teams, or wasn't among a selected few at the top of the standings, he or she pulled out of town with the season in the rearview mirror.

Now, the top 10 in each event have at least one more rodeo to go to - a regional playoff, or "chute out" - in Bozeman in two weeks.

The Central Rocky and Great Plains regions will be represented there, more than 30 schools in all. Similar rodeos are slated in Hobbs, N.M. (this weekend); Ogden, Utah, and Enid, Okla.

Those who sit No. 1 and 2 in the standings after the Missoula rodeo still qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo in June. But other playoff qualifiers have a chance to move on to the finals in Casper, Wyo., June 11-16. The six automatic qualifiers (two from each participating region) plus the top seven other finishers in each event at Bozeman move on.

What does it all mean to the locals from UM, coming off one of its best weekends at Glendive, where the women were first and the men second?

Freshman Melanie Schuler of Missoula is tied for third place in barrel racing, and within striking distance of a top-two finish if not the region title. No fewer than five teammates are also among the top 10 in the region in barrel racing, breakaway roping and goat tying.

Among them are seniors Hillary Lusse of Missoula, who's in the top 10 in all three; her twin sister Hollis, third in goat tying and just out of the top 10 in the other events, and Blue Ogilvie of Florence. Freshman Kirby Watt of Claresholm, Alberta, stands to qualify in two events, and sophomore Heather McDowell of Bridger has a chance for two as well.

The Montana women have climbed to second in the region behind powerhouse Western Montana College, though the Dillon school has an insurmountable lead.

"My girls won the Glendive rodeo and they finally beat Dillon, so we're right there with them," UM coach Kevin Nordahl said. "But (Western's) got four girls who are just tougher than nails."

Indeed, Western - under the guidance of Coach Iola Else - hogs four of the top five spots in the women's all-around standings. Holly Hayworth, last year's all-around champion, is first again. Teammates Pamela Rolph, Tiffany Wagner and Codi Clark are second, third and fifth, respectively.

The Western Montana College men hope to bring home a championship too. But their 2,865 points after nine rodeos are only 7Þ more than Montana State has. Montana's men are way back in sixth place.

Injuries and academic problems have slowed his men down, Nordahl said. "But we knew it was going to be kind of a rebuilding year anyway. When you lose seven men, it's hard to just recruit and fill in overnight."

Montana has two top-10 bareback riders - junior Mike Miner and freshman Tony Nordahl, both from Helena. Dru Stewart of Corvallis, who went to the CNFR two years ago in bull riding, is third in team roping. Justin Krause of Augusta, state high school champion steer wrestler last year, is third in that event.

Among the National Finals Rodeo stock that Big Bend & Flying 5 will bring from Ritzville, Wash., is Border Patrol, the PRCA's bull of the year in 2000. The feisty, kicking little bull gave Cody Hancock a 92-point ride in the first round of last year's National Finals Rodeo, and threw Fred Boettcher in the 10th round.

Kagan Sirett, an NFR qualifier in 2000 who's entered this weekend for Montana State despite a broken arm suffered a month ago at Edmonton, won the short go at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on Border Patrol. The bull will be saved for the Bull-O-Rama on Saturday night.

Big Sky Region

Through April 28 (9 of 10 rodeos)

Team standings

MEN

Western Montana College 2,865; 2, Montana State University 2,857.5; 3, Dawson Community College 2,720; 4, Miles Community College 1,127.5; 5, Northwest College 892.5; 6, University of Montana 867.5; 7, Northern Montana College 510.

WOMEN

Western Montana College 2,535; University of Montana 1,370; Montana State University 1,158.33; Miles Community College 375; Northern Montana College 330; Dawson Co9mmunity College 295; Northwest College 80.

Men's all-around - 1, Beau Franzen, DCC, 1075; 2, Andy Bolich, MSU, 1045; 3, Ryan Siemsen, WMC, 845; 4, Cody Taton, DCC, 590; 5, Chance Bernall, WMC, 515.

Women's all-around - 1, Holly Hayworth, WMC, 960; 2, Pamela Rolph, WMC, 780; 3, Tiffany Wagner, WMC, 470; 4, Tracey Currey, MSU, 438.33; 5, Codi Clark, WMC, 425.

Bareback - 1, Andy Bolich, MSU, 815; 2, Troy Solomon, MSU, 500; 3, Zachry Cayton, MSU, 365; 4, Matthew Mangis, MCC, 205; 5, Donald Anderson, NWC, 190; 6, Michael Miner, UM, 140; 7, Tony Nordahl, UM, 135; 8, (tie) Ty Smith, NMC, and Theron Paulsen, WMC, 80; 10, Randy VandenBos, MCC, 60.

Saddle bronc - 1, J.T. Robbins, WMC, 450; 2, Cody Taton, DCC, 440; 3, Doug Kallenberger, NMC, 335; 4, (tie) Andy Bolich, MSU, and Matthew Mangis, MCC, 230; 6, Cody Stahl, NWC, 190; 7, Seth Redding, NWC, 185; 8, Jon Hagen, WMC, 175; 9, Bo Bevis, WMC, 125; 10, Brandon Brooks, MSU, 120.

Bull riding - 1, Cody Buller, DCC, 530; 2, Sam Swan, WMC, 320; 3, Patrick Johnson, DCC, 290; 4, (tie) Bill Goolsbey, NWC, and Paul Weinberger, DCC, 210; 6, Benjamin Loyning, MCC, 175; 7, Jordan Holland, MSU, 165; 8, (tie) Kagan Sirett, MSU, and Wacey Kornemann, DCC, 150; 10, Travis Burian, DCC, 55.

Steer wrestling - 1, Beau Franzen, DCC, 540; 2, Jesse Heggie, WMC, 325; 3, Justin Krause, UM, 205; 4, Dallas Rasmussen, WMC, 150; 5, David Cruthers, NWC, 145; 6, Travis Preuitt, WMC, 140; 7, Chad Toavs, MCC, 135; 8, Rusty Christophersen, WMC, 120; 9, Will Stovall, WMC, 110; 10, Tyler Holland, MSU, 100.

Calf roping - 1, Chance Bernall, WMC, 425; 2, (tie) Beau Franzen, DCC, and Ryan Siemsen, WMC, 420; 4, Shane Eberline, WMC, 350; 5, Clay Kincheloe, MSU, 210; 6, Josh Harris, MCC, 160; 7, John Asay, NWC, 130; 8, Justin Gaskin, NWC, 100; 9, Rhett Harber, WMC, 90; 10, Cody Taton, DCC, 85.

Team roping - 1, Rafael Paoliello, WMC, 530; 2, Ryan Siemsen, WMC, 330; 3, Dru Stewart, UM, 242.5; 4, Coley Frerck, MSU, 135; 5, Tyler Holland, MSU, 110; 6, Clay Kincheloe, MSU, 95.5; 7, Chance Bernall, WMC, 90; 8, Tracey Currey, MSU, 85; 9, Jordan Holland, MSU, 75; 10, Rhett Harber, WMC, 70.

Barrel racing - 1, Tiffany Wagner, WMC, 350; 2, Denali Solomon, MSU, 340; 3, (tie) Melanie Schuler, UM, and Holly Hayworth, WMC, 300; 5, January Gendron, MSU, 145; 6, Rae Roesler, MCC, 140; 7, Beth Olson, WMC, 135; 8, (tie) Tammy Eberline, WMC, and Suzanne Bink, WMC, 120; 10, Hillary Lusse, UM, 90.

Breakaway roping - 1, Tara Lewis, MSU, 305; 2, Tracey Currey, MSU, 275; 3, Codi Clark, WMC, 255; 4, Jamee Clark, NMC, 200; 5, Hillary Lusse, UM, 135; 6, (tie) Brittani Brusett, MCC, and Kirby Watt, UM, 130; 8, Heather McDowell, UM, 125; 9, (tie) Tiffany Wagner, WMC, Lauren Kanning, MSU, and Pam Rolph, WMC, 120.

Goat tying - 1, Pam Rolph, WMC, 630; 2, Holly Hayworth, WMC, 615; 3, Hollis Lusse, UM, 208.33; 4, Hillary Lusse, UM, 175; 5, Blue Ogilvie, UM, 160; 6, Janci Hannen, WMC, 150; 7, Codi Clark, WMC, 130; 8, Kirby Watt, UM, 125; 9, Carrie Smith, WMC, 110; 10, Amanda Baisch, DCC, 100.

UM rodeo

First-round performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. The final round begins at noon on Saturday. The Bull-O-Rama is Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $5 for adults, $15 for a family and $2 for college students. Admission to the Bull-O-Rama is $10. Children 6 and under get in free all weekend.

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