BOZEMAN, Montana – Kyle Whitaker has never shied away from high expectations.
Montana State’s first-year rodeo coach embraced the championship program’s lofty goals when he arrived in the summer of 2021. The fall season did nothing to dissuade him. “I think,” he says bluntly, “I inherited a great situation.”
The Bobcat men’s and women’s teams each hold significant leads in the Big Sky Region team standings as the spring season dawns. The Montana State Rodeo, April 7-11 in Worthington Arena, begins a run of four straight weekends that finishes the 2021-22 National Intercollegiate Rodeo regular season. MSU’s Jacee Currin and Caleb Berquist lead the region’s all-around standings.
One of the most decorated pro rodeo cowboys in history, who broke records set by his father, Whitaker has seen plenty of rodeo talent during his career. He likes what he sees in his first college head coaching job, both in terms of raw talent an in the way it’s applied.
“We’ve got a lot of talent, and not only do they have talent but they work really hard at it and they’re dedicated to getting better,” he said. “That’s the key. If you have the talent but you don’t have the hard work ethic you’re not going to go far. These kids have impressed me. Their work ethic is unbelievable.”
When talent hit the dirt during last fall’s season, the Bobcats shone. MSU emerged from the fall’s five-rodeo season leading the men’s and women’s team standings, the men’s and women’s all-around individuals, four of the seven men’s individual events, and one of the three women’s events. The Bobcats talent is distributed among all the events on both the men’s and women’s sides of the competition.
“I’m comfortable with how we are in each event,” Whitaker said. “Different events in this region have different competition levels. A few of the events are as close to as tough as anywhere in the nation, and there are a few where the numbers are low enough that it’s maybe not as competitive. Specifically, in the rough stock events the numbers are down and that’s one area I’m hoping to improve is to get a few more of those rough stock riders.
Paige Rasmussen returns as Montana State rodeo’s most high-profile student-athlete. After winning the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) Women’s All-Around Championship and leading the Bobcat women’s team to a national crown in 2021, she enters the spring leading the Big Sky region an 11th nationally in goat tying. The junior has familiar company at the top of the standings, as her sister Shelby RasmussenOld a senior stands second.
“Paige and Shelby are first and second in the goat tying,” Whitaker said. “I hate to single out one person, but Paige is a generational athlete. I’ve been rodeoing for a long time, and of all the guys and girls I’ve seen I would put her in the top 10 for her athletic talent and drive. She’s a special competitor.”
Shelby Rasmussen had a solid fall for the Bobcats, standing second in goat tying, ninth in barrel racing and 13th in breakaway robing. Shai McDonald (second in barrel racing, sixth in breakaway roping) and Currin (fourth in breakaway roping, sixth in goat tying) each stand in the top 10 of two events coming out of the fall season. The Bobcat women scored 2033.83 points in the fall’s five rodeos, far out-pacing MSU Northern (second, 1211.0) and UM Western (1123.83).
Last year’s CNFR Reserve Champion, Berquist stands first in tie-down roping and 11th in steer wrestling entering the spring. Whitaker is impressed with what he’s seen. Specifically, Caleb Berquist is kind of in a league of his own in this region. (The team has) been joking around calling him Mr. Big Sky, and he kind of dominates.”
Several Bobcats posted strong falls. Caleb Meeks leads the region in saddle bronc riding and Berquist leads the tie-down roping. Teegan Leon is the top team roper as a heeler.
“We have so many talented guys and girls, the timed events are really, really tough,” Whitaker said. “There’s girls on the team that aren’t even showing up in the standings that could win about anywhere. It’s a tough field, especially if you look at the breakaway roping right now. It’s a really popular event, it’s gaining in popularity, and we’ve got 10 or 12 girls that I would match with about anybody. That makes it tough, because there’s only so many points to go around.”
After the MSU Spring Rodeo, officially mandated of two separate events, the Bobcats finish the spring with rodeos at Miles Community College, the University of Providence and the University of Montana.