Hepper and Hemphill Dominate RRI Ladies Only Roping

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Hepper and Hemphill Dominate RRI Ladies Only Roping Job One for Molly Hepper and Jessica Hemphill was to steer clear of mistakes. The payoff for the fundamentally flawless friends-the only team to make four clean runs at the 2009 Reno Rodeo Invitational Ladies Only Roping, held June 24 at the Reno Livestock Events Center-was $20,000 and the title.

Hepper, of Fort Klamath, Ore., and Hemphill, of nearby Tulelake, Calif., who took the opening round with an 8.03-second run and also won the short round in 8.94 seconds after two other 8-second runs, stopped the clock four times in 33.31 seconds. Both chuckled at Hemphill's admitted "money loops" on their first and fourth steers, but hey, they worked. And team roping's a timed event, so there are no bonuses for style points or subtractions for form faults.

Hepper's standout scoring (the Ladies Only score was set at 10 feet; the box was 19 feet deep), sticking and jelly-roll handles were Vintage Molly, and true to form. The former Molly McAuliffe was the 1986 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association all-around cowgirl, back when she rodeoed for Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore. She was a team roping, barrel racing, breakaway roping machine, but quite honestly thought the days of her opportunity to win major titles were behind her.

"This is a big deal for me," Hepper said. "I've roped for years, and have never won anything like this. We had lady luck on our side. We drew good steers, and got them caught."

Hepper, a 42-year-old history teacher at Chiloquin High, lives in Fort Klamath with her husband, Gary, and daughter, Cate, who turned 8 on July 21. Son Brad, 24, and his wife are expecting their first baby in October. So-believe it or not-the 2009 RRI Ladies Only Champion Header will soon be answering to Grandma Molly.

Being surrounded by loved ones was the best part of Hepper's maiden voyage at the Ladies Only. (She's entered the Reno Rodeo Invitational with her dad, Ambrose McAuliffe, but it was her first swing at the Ladies Only.)

"I'm thankful to be here with my whole family," she said. "To get to rope with my dad and Jessie is pretty special. My whole family is never at a roping. This has been really neat. Gary is my No. 1 fan and supporter. We met at a team roping."

She also felt extra special and sentimental about besting the 125-team field with Hemphill, after enjoying a friendly mentor-student relationship with the girl who, at age 21, is exactly half Hepper's age.

"This means a lot, because I've watched this girl grow up," Hepper said. "She grew up about an hour from us on a hay and cow ranch in Tulelake, and has always had a natural heel loop. This is amazing. She went off to college (Dickinson State University in N.D.), and I called her back in February to see if she wanted to rope here. I have a lot of confidence in Jessie. She handles pressure really well. She's really gritty. I've never seen her safety up, kick across the arena and second-guess herself."

"Gamers" like that aren't typically the most consistent. But both had their aggressive gauges set at full tilt, with the simultaneous mutual vow of roping smart.

Hepper rode a young horse, a 5-year-old she calls Winnemucca, because she bought him at a horse sale in that Nevada town last year. "I started riding him last fall," said the USTRC No. 5 header. "I had reconstructive shoulder surgery on my roping arm in March 2008. I tore away all the ligaments from my shoulder (from years of dislocating it playing basketball as a kid). It finally gave up.

"Anyway, this horse is kind of a fluke. He's homely headed, and he's just a baby. He's the fastest horse I've ever ridden. He runs to steers flat and amazingly fast. I had a great horse in college, Costa, and I never thought I'd have another great one."

The wounded wing is another reason she thought she might not see another main-event winner's circle. But the doctors did great and she kept her rehab commitments. Throw in the strong will that beats in the heart of a champion, and Hepper's comeback story is complete.

"I give lots of credit to my amazing orthopedic surgeon in Bend," she said. "He was the only one who'd take me seriously when I said I wanted to rope again after the surgery."

It was Hemphill's second trip to the RRI Ladies Only. She previously placed third in the two-steer average with Tracy Thornburg, but this was her first time to strike at the big bucks. The agricultural business major at Dickinson State will be a senior this fall. She'd just returned from the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., when she pulled into Reno. She's been working on a ranch for Kenny and Mary Kay Gesinger in Eagle Butte, S.D. this summer, and going to ropings and rodeos. She breakaway ropes, ties goats and runs barrels at South Dakota Rodeo Association events.

Hemphill is the daughter of parent ranchers Joe and Rhonda, who couldn't be in Reno on roping day because they were home in Tulelake videoing their calves for a video sale in Reno a couple weeks later. She rode a 13-year-old sorrel horse she calls Shooter. He came from ProRodeo Hall of Famer Paul Tierney, and she's ridden him about a year and a half. "He's just a good all-around horse-as solid as one can get," she said. "I breakaway on him, too."

Hepper and Hemphill share a common comfort zone, which they called on the

day of the roping. They met up at Reno for their RRI reunion, but there was no

time for even one practice run. "I've roped with Molly since I was a little kid," Hemphill explained. "She's helped me with my breakaway roping a lot. Not many people in our area rope, so those of us who do are all friends.

"Molly gives me a lot of confidence. When you back in the box, you know she's going to spin one for you. Molly's the sure-bet roper you always want to rope with. She's the kind of girl anyone can rope behind. She's as solid as they get."

They had darn near all day long to rope their last steer. Sometimes that's tougher than having to be 10. Hepper and Hemphill just kept the hammer down and stuck to the plan. "The last steer is just another steer," Hemphill said. "You just need to catch him. There's no difference between that one and the others. We just had to stay aggressive."

Hemphill was headed back to North Dakota "and back to work" the evening of the roping. She left with a rope sack full of satisfaction. "I finally finished what I started," said the USTRC No. 4 roper. "I've won a lot of fast times, but never put them together and said, 'Come beat me.' Finally. It took 21 years.

"I made the college finals heeling as a freshman. That was pretty cool, too. But we've never known what $10,000 feels like. This is perfect timing, and this money goes to my mom. I blew the engine in my truck two days before the college finals. I need to thank my parents and the Gesingers. Without them, I wouldn't be here."

Texans Jacque Woolman and Tibba Smith finished second in the four-steer average with 43.82 seconds on four steers. In addition to the team's $10,000 paycheck, they were presented Montana Silversmiths bronzes and luggage, Rogers Cowboy Supply trophy halters and travel mugs, and Team Equine saddle pads.

Californians Chris Avery and Sara Pascoe (whose brother Bear was just drafted by the San Francisco 49ers) jumped up from 10th to third in the short round with 56.62 on four for $5,000 and Montana Silversmiths rope bags. They were followed by Renee Paetsch and Jodi McCay in fourth (56.7, $4,750 plus Montana Silversmiths leather travel cases) and Tonia Forsberg and Jaime Hinton in fifth (30.31 on three, $4,500 plus Montana Silversmiths lamps). Margaret Kenneally and Misty Perry's 32.56 on three steers was sixth, and worth $4,250. Each member of the third- through sixth-place teams also was awarded a Team Equine saddle pad and Rogers Cowboy Supply travel mug.

The RRI Ladies Only prize line continues to grow, along with the roping. There are so many ways to win, and no one who enters walks away empty-handed. RRI Ladies Only Producer Perry Di Loreto and his daughter Teresa Di Loreto-Long this year welcomed every woman with a Cactus Ropes rope bag filled with goodies like a Heel-O-Matic DVD, Pro Equine bell boots, a Wrangler buy-one-get-one-free certificate, a D-Bar-M gift certificate and a 20 percent discount card from Pro Equine.

They also make sure there's a short round for everyone, even the teams who missed all of their first three steers. The 2009 RRI Ladies Only three-steer average was won by Lacy Hook and Marti Anderson. They roped three steers in 28.5 seconds for $3,250. The two-steer average champs were Taya Ellerman and Kylie McLean, They were 16.82 on two for $2,000. One-steer winners Lois Turk Roche and Julie Hopper roped their last one in 9.04 seconds for $1,250.

"This is an amazing roping," Hepper said in summation of a great day. "That Perry and Teresa put on a roping like this for girls is so great. For people like me to get to rope these kind of cattle for this kind of money and these kinds of prizes is beyond my wildest imagination."