On his way to a fourth-place finish at the College National Finals Rodeo, Fresno State senior Reed Neely reconnected with a familiar face when he opened action in the saddle bronc final standings on Sunday, June 13, at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper, Wyoming.

The Sanger native rode Big Bunny for a rollicking, eight-second ride in his first-round draw and received a score of 77 points from the judges.

The two had met two years earlier in the finals, when Neely finished in 15th place with 61.5 points.

“Half of your score depends on how hard the horse rides so part of it is a little out of your control,” Neely said. “I got a little more help this time since he was more mature and knew how to buck better. It was a nice way to start the competition, and I was already pretty relaxed and confident coming in.”

His next ride, however, was more dramatic when he came within an inch of receiving no score. When his boot almost came out of the stirrup midway through the ride, he was forced to hold his foot back in a locked position. The move cost him points and led to his lowest score of the event (68), yet kept him in contention for the 12-person final.

After a third-round score of 70 points, he posted a short go final round score of 77.5 points, his best of the event, to finish with a final combined score of 273 points.

Overall, Dylan Schofield of West Texas College won the title with 310 points.

“My goal was to place top five,” said Neely, who was seeded seventh nationally before the event. “I would have loved to win, but you have to have some luck with your horse draws. Even if you’re the most talented rider in the competition, there’s often something out of your control that you might not be able to overcome. There’s no doubt I’ll be back next year and go for it again.”

He had already proven his place among the top collegiate riders in December in Ft. Worth, Texas when he won the permit challenge title at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo hosted by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“It was a long year for a lot of people (because of the pandemic),” said Neely, an agricultural communications student. “It was special to be back there in Casper competing with the nation’s best and in front of my parents and teammates.”

How the Bulldoggers ranked

Four other Fresno State Bulldoggers rodeo team members made the 1,200-mile trip to compete at the collegiate season finale.

Senior Mitchell Parham (Clovis), juniors Cole Dodds (Sanger) and Jillian Murray (Livermore) and sophomore Rylee George (Oakdale) earned their invitations thanks to top-four rankings in the West Coast Region season standings.

In his third finals appearance, Parham finished in 19th place in the bareback riding standings with 191.5 points based on his scores of 63.5, 66 and 62 points, respectively, in the opening rounds.

Dodds enjoyed his best finish in tie down roping and placed 11th overall. His three opening round efforts included times of 15.6, 10.6 and 12.6 seconds for a combined time of 38.8 seconds.

He also tied for 37th place in the team roping standings in the header position with teammate Rylee George, who competed in the heeler position. They combined for a 12-second time in the opening round.

Murray followed in 40th place as a heeler in team roping and competed with healer Kolton King of Feather River College. They posted a score of 15.2 seconds in the third round.

George added 38th place individually in the breakaway roping category with successful times of 11.6 and 11.7 seconds in the first and third rounds, respectively.

Murray competed in the same event and tied for 52nd overall based on her time of 12.8 seconds in the second round.

Among the team’s finals returnees, Parham had scored prior top-25 finishes in bareback riding in 2019 (14th) and 2018 (23rd). Dodds had placed 11th in team roping in 2019 with his older brother, Bodi, who completed his eligibility that year.

George and Murray made their finals debuts after they ranked first and second in the region in the all-around category.

Neely also ranked first in the region in the men’s saddle bronc season rankings.

In the CNFR final men’s team standings, Fresno State ranked 27th overall with 145 points.

In its prior appearance in 2019, the men’s team placed 17th and was led by all-around national champion and then-senior Colton Campbell. In March 2020, the men’s and women’s squad ranked second in the region and top 25 nationally before the remainder of the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m proud of our Bulldoggers,” said third-year coach Uhuru Adem. “They had a lot more obstacles to go through this year than most other collegiate rodeo programs across the nation. With bad luck, good luck, ups and downs, our student-athletes stayed positive and determined. I couldn’t have asked for anything more with the given circumstances.”

Adem was a finals saddle bronc qualifier in each of his two seasons that he competed as a student at Fresno State in 2013 and 2014. The agricultural business alumnus was also a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association California Circuit Finals qualifier from 2012 to 2016.

The Fresno State rodeo team dates back to 1946 and officially became a club in 1949 — the same year the first College National Finals Rodeo was held in San Francisco. Today, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association sponsors more than 100 college rodeos that include 3,500 student members and 137 universities.

More information on the team is available at its Facebook page.

(Photo by Dan Hubell)