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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fox Valley teens eye national rodeo titles in Wyoming

Fox Valley teens eye national rodeo titles in Wyoming

Dust-covered, leather cowboy boots sporting a special sheen borne from hard use rest in the entrance to Brent Miller's home on School Road.

Two pairs of spotless blue jeans still carrying price tags and the manufacturer's label hang on the back of a living room chair.

Miller seems uncomfortable without the boots and his favorite white cowboy hat as he sits on the couch with Kelsey Ham discussing their 900-mile, 19-hour trip with their families to the 63rd Annual NationalHigh School Finals Rodeo next week in Gillette, Wyo.

Miller, 17, a senior at Fox Valley Lutheran High School, and Ham, 18, who lives in the Town of Center and recently graduated from Seymour High School, will take a year's worth of rodeo experience to Wyoming in hope of earning top honors in a sport where champions are decided in less than 25 seconds of intense competition.

Miller and Ham will join more than 1,500 contestants from 41 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia in the world's largest rodeo where they will compete in team roping.

"You are there with the best of the best and you know you are one of them," Miller said.

Team roping pits a pair of riders and their horses against a steer weighing about 450 pounds. The riders' goal is to quickly stop and control the steers like cowboys used to do a century ago to manage cattle on ranches.

"You have a header and a heeler. Kelsey and I are heelers," Miller said.

When the steer is released from a chute, the header throws a rope to catch the animal's horns or head. Meanwhile, the heeler throws a rope and tries to lay it down in front of the steer so its back feet step into the loop.

The header and heeler pull their ropes taut, stopping the steer in its tracks.

"You are happy like you wouldn't believe when your ropes are tight," Miller said.

Professional teams can stop a steer in three or four seconds. At the high school level, seven seconds is considered an excellent run.

Teams get two runs to make it to a rodeo's final round and an additional run to earn their total points for the competition.

Team roping is the rodeo's only coed competition, where girls' teams compete against boys and some boys and girls team up to compete.

Miller's longtime partner is Colton Bound of Deerfield in Dane County. Ham's header is Bobbi Wardell of Highland in Iowa County.

"You need to practice a lot, so you just have to plan to get together," Ham said.

This will be Ham's second trip to the high school nationals. In 2010, she competed in pole bending, a girls-only sport at the nationals where a rider and her horse twist and turn around a series of six poles implanted in the ground.

This time Ham will compete in a sport familiar to her rodeo- veteran father, Rich.

"My dad was a college champion heeler. He competed in and won the College National Finals Rodeo in 1982," Ham said.

In fact, Ham and Miller's parents are all veteran rodeo performers. Ham's mother, Cindy, was a barrel racer and is a former member of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association.

Miller's parents, Dave and Annette Miller, are experienced team ropers.

Miller began competitive heeling when he was 10, while accompanying his parents on rodeo trips. Ham got her first roping saddle when she was 9 years old.

"I learned to swing a rope when I was 3 or 4 years old. I've been riding a horse for that long, too," Ham said.

In addition to possibly earning the title of national champion, competitors are vying for more than $200,000 in prize money and $350,000 in college scholarships.

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