SDSU Rodeo Club’s elite

Top PRCA bareback riders develop skills at State

For Joe Gunderson, college was fun, but after he got out of school he discovered that good times were even better.

Actually, that would be Good Times.

Gunderson ’07, who wanted to be a professional cowboy since he was in high school, scored an 88-point ride aboard the bareback horse Good Times to win the first go-around of the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas December 2, 2010, in his first trip to the NFR.

He finished seventh out of fifteen qualifiers to the national title event of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

His ten rides at Thomas & Mack Arena earned him $44,627 at the National Finals Rodeo. During the year, Gunderson crisscrossed the nation, often by plane, to earn $116,425 to place eleventh among all PRCA bareback riders. His career earnings total $241,000 through 2010.

“He’s an alumnus that we’ll always be proud of; a good, hard-working kid,” SDSU rodeo coach Ron Skovly says.

The Sutton connection

Gunderson’s time at SDSU ended before Skovly returned to the team he competed for in 1992 to 1996. Gunderson competed for coach Terry McCutcheon, but he credits former SDSU Rodeo Club members Jim Sutton and his son, Steve, for recruiting him.

“When I was 18, I moved out to Jim and Steve Sutton’s place” from his home in Montgomery, Minnesota, Gunderson says.

He explains, “They’d been family friends forever. They encouraged me [to go to State]. My parents were going to make me go someplace. I didn’t know until August [where I would go to school]. I was dragging my feet. I didn’t have a plan.

“Brookings was right in between my folks and where I was living” in Agar on the Suttons’ central South Dakota ranch.

Gunderson’s parents, Gregg and Maureen, are high school teachers. In the summers, his father would work on Sutton‘s ranch and stock contracting operation. “My sister, my mom, and me would go out and visit the Suttons,” Gunderson says.

Adrenaline spurs hard work

When he climbed aboard rough stock as a high schooler, Gunderson was hooked by the adrenaline rush.

While he found riding fun, he also knew rides were more fun when he won. To do that required work.

In college, “A couple times a week I tried to work on improving myself. If it was riding a bucking machine, a spur board or going and getting on bucking horses, I just tried to always get better,” says Gunderson, who was a four-time placer at the College National Finals Rodeo.

Gunderson also was a four-time champion in the Great Plains Region, one of the nation’s toughest, Skovly says.

The beginning years

Gunderson carries on an SDSU rodeo tradition that began even before Jim Sutton ’57 arrived on campus in 1953. The SDSU Rodeo Club held its first meeting in 1952 in the Stock Judging Pavilion (now the Ag Heritage Museum). The first Jackrabbit Stampede was in 1955 in Clear Lake.

The next two years were in Rapid City. “It rained on us both years,” recalls Sutton, a bareback rider then.

After graduation, Sutton competed in amateur rodeo with the South Dakota Rodeo Association for a few years before getting his PRCA card. He competed as a calf roper and bulldogger for more than twenty years. “Never was very good,” a humble Sutton says.

Needing a confidence boost

Scott Montague rodeoed on the SDSU team from 1994 to 1997. In 1996, Sutton Rodeo, which has supplied stock for the Jackrabbit Stampede since its beginning, brought in rough stock that the SDSU rodeo team could use in practice.

Montague, who grew up in Fruitdale near Rapid City, made a good ride that impressed fellow stock contractor Casey Jones.

“He said I should buy my PRCA permit. I said no. He wrote a check for my permit and said, ‘Pay me back when you get to your first NFR.’ I just slid the check back and said I wasn’t ready,” says Montague, who had already rejected the idea when others suggested it.

But Sutton’s advice did “trigger me to think: Other guys think I’m good. Maybe I should get some more confidence in myself,” Montague says.

Off to chase a dream

In spring 1997, he bought his PRCA card and advanced to the College National Finals Rodeo in Rapid City. That would be his last year at State. “I won my first couple [PRCA] rodeos that spring and was hooked on PRCA,” he says. He didn’t go to school in the fall.

When he was ready to go to school the next year, Tom Richter was no longer the rodeo coach and Montague transferred.

Educationally, he considers his year at Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Oklahoma, to be a wasted year. But his rodeo career was about to take off. In 1998, he repeated as the Badlands Circuit bareback champion and in 1999 he won his first major rodeo—the Dodge City (Kansas) Roundup.

In 2001, he finished eleventh in the world in bareback riding and won $92,563.

That was the first of four times that he qualified for the National Finals Rodeo by being among the top fifteen money winners. His best years were 2005 and 2007, when he finished tenth and won $118,438 and $104,980, respectively.

Absorbing NFR atmosphere

Montague, who has $733,742 in career earnings through 2010, says there is nothing like the first trip to the NFR.

He says, “There’s something about the first round, you go there the first year. You can’t describe it in words. It’s a super awe. You’re watching the grand entry and the best bucking horses in the world are right there in the chute.

“If you’re talking to another guy who has been there, and ask ‘What about being at the National Finals before the first ride?’ Neither one of you has a word for it. You just shake your shake head and say ‘Yeah.’”

Gunderson says at his inaugural NFR appearance in 2010 he was in “shock. I was in awe that it was actually happening.” Previously, he had just watched the National Finals on TV. “It was quite an eye opener. It’s just amazing the production that they put into it and the atmosphere.”

Producing NFR atmosphere

Sutton would know. His stock company was responsible for organizing the openings at the 1995 and 1996 NFR.

“It was a pretty taxing finals for us, but we got along OK,” Sutton says. His firm brought in forty head of saddle horses for use in the opening ceremonies and other activities as well as selecting flag girls and contracting for entertainment (clowns) during the rodeo.

“We used practically all South Dakota people, and had many Miss Rodeo America winners because we knew them from being involved in the pageant,” Sutton says.

Smeenks participate in pageantry

Two members of the 2010 flag team were sisters Trisha and Jenna Smeenk, of Belle Fourche. Trisha graduated in May from SDSU while Jenna will be a senior this fall. It was Trisha’s fifth year with the flag team and Jenna’s fourth year.

The Smeenks arrived two days before the competition to get matched with a horse and practice with the other eighteen members.

“Carrying flags is a little more complicated than you might think,” Trisha Smeenk tells Bob Harkins in an MSNBC interview. “It’s a lot about precision. Since we’re all going so fast and it happens so quickly, if you’re not together it matters.”

The team practices three times a day so the choreographed show can come off perfectly on rodeo’s biggest stage.

The lure of performing in Las Vegas before rodeo’s biggest names is powerful. Jenna Smeenk tells MSNBC, “It’s really cool to be back . . . with the people you just watch on TV. . . . It’s hard to keep a level head and just do your job without getting too starry-eyed.”

The focus changes

But bright lights don’t beacon forever.

Montague relishes his four National Finals Rodeo appearances and doesn’t regret having to enter 100 rodeos a year to achieve the goal he scribbled down during a motivational talk given by former PRCA champ Lyle Sankey while Richter was coaching the SDSU team.

But today Montague is married with two children.

Last year he competed in about sixty rodeos. This year it will be thirty or forty. In 2012 it will be zero. “I talked it over with my wife. My girl will be four on New Year’s Eve and my boy turns two a couple months later so its time to hang up the spurs and be a family man.

“We decided it’s time to camp, hang out at the lake. I still ride pretty good. That’s how I want to go out,” he says.

He has a record six Badland Circuit bareback titles and wants one more in his final season.

Making more champions possible

Gunderson, meanwhile, expects he will enter about as many rodeos as he did last year—ninety—and he hopes to improve on his finish at the National Finals Rodeo. Right now he is in good position to qualify again, sitting in eighth place as of June 28.

He is single and travels with other PRCA riders. The only heartbeats at his home are some of the Sutton livestock.

Meanwhile, in Brookings, rodeo coach Ron Skovly continues to ramp up the Steer for State fund-raising program so he can update facilities and offer scholarships to the region’s best riders and ropers. People like Scott Montague and Joe Gunderson.

Skovly says South Dakota is one of the top three states in the nation for high school rodeo recruits.

Montague is an unofficial recruiter. “I think I tell everybody they need to go to college and they need to rodeo for a year. If you can juggle both of them, it makes you a better person. I really appreciated the community of Brookings, how it helped with the rodeo team.

“I didn’t graduate from there, but it’s still my favorite college. It helped shape into me who I am,” he declares.

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