Not much talk about the University of Montana rodeo team in South Dakota right now.
Good bulls willing and the steers don't veer, that might change by Saturday.
The College National Finals Rodeo starts Tuesday in Rapid City with a streamlined format and a darkhorse from Missoula. UM, long overshadowed by its cowboy cousins at Montana State, has never before qualified a full men's team for the CNFR.
With Big Sky Region all-around champion Bryant Mikkelson one of six cowboys competing in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center arena, Montana could be a contender.
"Here's my philosophy," said UM rough-stock coach Kevin Nordahl. "I think we have quality athletes. If we can draw with 'em, we'll ride with 'em."
Action starts with slack performances at 6:30 a.m. today and Wednesday. There are evening performances each night through Saturday's championshp round, all starting at 7:30 p.m.
In previous years the first round began on Monday, the final go was Sunday. All contestants still compete in three preliminary rounds today through Friday. The top 12 in each event make it back to Saturday night's finals.
Everyone is up in everything this morning. Mikkelson, UM's timed-event standout, will have completed three rounds in two of his events before Wednesday night's performance begins.
Two men's teams from each of 11 regions qualified for nationals, but only half a dozen or so have realistic shots at winning the championship. Nordahl thinks Montana, champion of the traditionally competitive Big Sky Region, is one of them.
"I hate to go out on a limb and say we're a contender, but we are. I think we're going to be in the top four if the chips fall right," he said.
The Montana women placed second behind Weber State last year, the first time in years the CNFR was held anywhere else but in Bozeman. Only two UM women qu alified this time - Amanda Fox of Kalispell and Teresa Wolff of Circle. Both made it in goat tying.
Two leaders for UM in 1997, Rachael Myllymaki of Arlee and Cally Goyins of Dillon, transfered to Western Montana College, which easily won the Big Sky Region women's title.
Myllymaki is one of three returning CNFR champions. She captured the barrel racing title in '97. Kelli Fowers Talbert of Weber State won both the all-around and the goat-tying crowns. Calf roping king Jerome Schneeberger of Southwestern Oklahoma State is also back.
The Montana men's squad is deep and experienced. Three of them - Mikkelson, Shuan Gerleman and Perry Detton - will vie for points in steer wrestling. Jason Harris and Reed Trexler of Corvallis are up in bull riding, while Harris and Buddy Dolan double up in bareback. Mikkelson is in all three timed events, including team roping, in which he'll team with C.B. Wagner of Montana State.
"I guess you could say we're taking more of a veteran team," said Nordahl, a professional steer wrestler and bull rider himself. "You couldn't have finished out the year any better than these guys did. They have momentum flowing."
All teams and contestants start from scratch Tuesday morning. During the regular season, Nevada-Las Vegas men led the nation in points and Montana was eighth. Defending champion Panhandle State of Oklahoma was 10th, but competed in perhaps the toughest region.
Hill College of Texas has one of the hottest competitors: bareback rider Chris Harris, making his first CNFR appearance, ranks sixth in the PRCA world standings.
Schneeberger ranks 18th in calf roping in the PRCA after qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas last year. He's part of two potent husband-wife duos for Southwestern Oklahoma State. Wife Shawn Wise was the breakaway roping champion in the Central Plains region.
Their teammates include Canadian bareback rider Davey Shields, also an NFR qualifier, who looks to move up from his runner-up finish at the CNFR. His new wife, Sonya Coy, was the Central Plains women's all-around champion.
Kyle Whitaker of Nebraska captured the PRCA's Linderman Award in 1997 for winning more than $1,000 in three events, including at least one roughstock and one timed event.