Cesar de la Cruz and Derrick Begay Set Their Sights on World Titles

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The 2011 ProRodeo regular season ended with a dramatic and abrupt flourish at the Justin Boots Championships of the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour in Omaha, Neb. The hottest teams going: Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz, Clay Tryan and Travis Graves, Erich Rogers and Kory Koontz all made the final round of the elimination-style playoff.

In the end, Begay and de la Cruz, survived the fray to take over the top spot in the world standings on the regular season's final night. The roped their final steer in 4.4 seconds?the only clean run of the final round?and amassed $28,123, bringing their total for the season to $118,754.

The weeks leading up to that culminating night, however, may tell us more about what to expect at the 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

First, Clay Tryan and Travis Graves won the Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo, taking the top spot in the world from Chad Masters and Jade Corkill. Then, in Pendleton, Derrick Begay and Cesar de la Cruz overcame the field and over took the top spot in the world standings by a slim margin. Then, for the first three rounds in Omaha, the world standings lead seesawed back and forth between the two teams.

On the first ?unofficial' updated world standings report the PRCA released in Omaha, Tryan and Graves held on to the lead. Later that evening, they produced a more accurate version that showed Begay and de la Cruz in the top spot. While Begay and de la Cruz did end up on top, Tryan and Graves didn't let them get too far out of reach. They still won $25,897 in Omaha.

"Anytime you finish strong, it feels good," Begay said. "Tonight was the last big night of the season, it officially ends tomorrow, but tonight was when it really ends. It was big to get out of here with the win. I don't know if we're on top or if Clay's on top, I don't know the math. I've just been roping, but it's close.

"One of the biggest feats is to end up on top at the end of the year. You roped all year on all the conditions against all the guys, so to end up on top at the end means a lot. For anybody to win the year end means a lot."

It surely does. Momentum breeds confidence and confidence helps cowboys survive the inevitable NFR ups and downs. Over the past two years, the ups and downs have resulted in unlikely champions. In 2009 it was Nick Sartain and Kollin VonAhn and last year it was Trevor Brazile and Patrick Smith who came from the eighth position entering the Finals to win the gold buckle.

"This feels really good," de la Cruz said. "I feel like I'm going to get 10 in a row at the Finals, I just feel like my header is never going to miss. So I'm going to keep my head down and try to catch two feet."

That said, de la Cruz didn't rope especially well in Omaha. To be sure, he roped well enough, but by his own admission, he wasn't up to his own standards.

"I feel really fortunate right now," de la Cruz said in the pressroom after his win. "I didn't throw the prettiest heel loops the last couple of nights. I figured-eighted in the semifinal round, then in the final four, I threw something in there that just worked. It was good enough. Derrick drug him right in my loop, just like I needed him to."

While intense, the final night in Omaha was anything but pretty in the team roping.

In the semifinal round of eight competitors, Chad Masters and Jade Corkill rope a neck a little way down the pen and were 5.8. Jake Long legged up for Brady Tryan. Then, on the best steer in the pen, Matt Sherwood and Cory Petska went 4.3?which was the fastest time of that round. Spencer Mitchell missed for Broc Cresta, followed by a 5.0 second run from Erich Rogers and Kory Koontz. Luke Brown and Martin Lucero couldn't get tight. Then came Begay and de la Cruz, who figure-eighted the heel loop but still managed to get a flag in 4.8. The smoothest run of the round came from Tryan and Graves, who stopped the clock in 4.5 seconds.

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In the final round of four, Rogers and Koontz were the first team out and had a fast run started, but somehow Koontz slipped a leg and the plus-five resulted in a 9.3-second run.

Next were Begay and de la Cruz. Begay necked the steer and a less-than-ideal handle ensued. But de la Cruz cleaned him up and stopped the clock in 4.4. With as big a grin as you'll see from the stoic Navajo, Begay looked back at the clock and stuck his tongue out in relief.

With what appeared to be a miscommunication with his horse or the chute help, Clay Tryan broke out, but still managed to rope his steer in 4.1 seconds despite the 10-second penalty and Matt Sherwood, the last roper to go, split the horns.

"When you go that fast and things happen so fast, the percentages aren't that great and I didn't want to miss," Begay said of the pressure-packed final round. "So I shook out a big loop, opened my loop up when I threw it and I got the neck. It was legal enough, I guess. I didn't handle it great, but Cesar did a great job of cleaning it up back there and it ended up OK. I didn't do a very good job, so it felt great to get a clean run. Cesar did a great job heeling and we dodged two bullets this week."

The first, of course, was de la Cruz's figure eight.

"When I saw that loop go down there, my heart just sank," he said. "I still don't know how I caught that steer by two feet."

Teams on a roll just tend to get those breaks.

"There were a few big highlights and a few little highlights and things just happened at the right time," Begay said of the season. "Just to end the year on top is the biggest highlight for me. It's been a fun year, but I'm glad it's over."

For de la Cruz, the win in Omaha gave him a career grand slam on playoff finales. He and Colter Todd won the Caldwell, Puyallup and Dallas. And, he ended the season in the top spot for the first time in his career.

"I've never been in this situation before," he said. "It's new to me. I'm glad to get my header in the top spot. He's done the best job all year long. From start to finish, he's been doing awesome. I've been struggling to find really good heel horses and I feel like I finally found one, got him around Nampa, Idaho. Better late than never. He's been working really good and we've been winning on him."

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The horse came from Randon Adams and Western State Ranches in Dublin, Texas. The blood-red sorrel bit de la Cruz "In the neck. Not in the back, not in the rear end, in the neck." So, of course, he named the horse Dracula. His theme of naming his horses after outlaws (Johnny Ringo, Annie Oakley and are injured at the moment) remains in tact, "Dracula is kind of an outlaw."

Regardless of what he's riding, the Wrangler NFR is shaping up as Derrick and Cesar versus Clay and Travis.

"Clay said he wants to start a rivalry," Begay said. "I said if he wants to start it, I'll play along. If you're out here doing this, you might as well have fun doing it. I'll stick to one of the best headers in the world."

Tie-Down Roping

While the team roping will be a battle, Tuf Cooper is doing all he can to set himself apart in the tie-down roping.

He entered the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha with nearly a $10,000 lead. Once there, he just kept making it hard on the rest of the field to catch him. He was second in the first round, third in the second and led the average going into the round of eight.

Once there, he tied his calf down in 7.9 second to place second in the round?behind his good friend Shane Hanchey. Rounding out the final field of four were Jerrad Hofstetter and Cody Ohl.

"I knew with the talent that was in there anybody could win it," Cooper said.

He watched Hofstetter stop the clock in 7.9. Then Ohl broke out to be 6.9. Tuf took his chances, just taking one wrap on the tie.

"That wrap and hooey made me a little nervous right there," Tuf said. "They've been kicking the last couple of rounds."

Tuf tried to hush the crowd, but the calf stayed tied down for Cooper to take the lead with a 7.4.

Trying to match it, Hanchey turned in a no-time.

When the computers were done whizzing, Cooper amassed $30,499 and pushed his lead in the tie-down roping to just over $30,000 over Hunter Herrin.

For his first three NFRs, no one would have been surprised if he rode out of Thomas and Mack with a gold buckle, but this year it's become an expectation.

"This is my best shot so far," Cooper said. "I'm not going to change my game plan. I'm gong to go home and work harder at than I ever have. The best pressure to have is pressure to do well. I wouldn't know how to rope without pressure and expectations."

Steer Wrestling
A few cowboys punched their tickets to the Wrangler NFR with Omaha performances, but none with more emphasis than steer wrestler Blake Knowles.

"I came into tonight knowing it was do or die," he said. "If I didn't make the top four--out of the round of eight--I wouldn't make the NFR. I also knew that if I didn't win second or better, I was going to have to at least get a time in the top four, because if I hadn't, the money wouldn't count toward the world standings."

He made it easy on himself, though, by finishing second in the semifinal round after stopping the clock in 4.0 seconds?just behind reigning world champion Dean Gorsuch's 3.7.

"When I was second in the top eight, I knew I had enough money to qualify for the Finals," a relieved Knowles said. "Immediately my goal shifted from making the NFR to winning a big rodeo. I'd never done that before at something of this caliber."

So he ran it at that last steer and got a flag in 4.3 seconds. He won $19,763 and pushed himself from 16th in the world standings to 9th heading into the Wrangler NFR.

The Rest
The only cowboy who earned more than Cooper in Omaha was saddle bronc rider Wade Sundell who won the semifinals with an 89-point ride on Rafter H Rodeo's Spade and the finals with a 90 on Powder River Rodeo's Miss Congeniality to bank $36,307.

"Man, it was a little wooly out there tonight," Sundell said. "It's pretty good to be 89 and 90 on the same day. I'm at the top of my game right now. Everything's clicking and I'm drawing good. Everything is working out the way it needs to ? it's a great way to end it before we go to the big show in Vegas."

Bareback rider Steven Dent had a sense of d?j? vu all his own in front of 11,139 home state fans. Dent, of Mullen, Neb., won the semifinal round with an 86-point ride on Beutler & Son Rodeo's Black Cat and then shared the finals win with traveling partner Jason Havens with an 87 on Lancaster and Pickett Rodeo's Top Flight to earn his second consecutive win in Omaha and third in four years. For the weekend, he won $23,739.

Second-year PRCA bull rider Jacob O'Mara, of Prairieville, La., jumped from ninth place to fourth place in the world standings by winning the finals with an 87-point ride on Robinson Pro Rodeo's Exotic Justin. His total earnings for the weekend was $22,169.

Sue Smith won the barrel racing final and $9,325 in a time of 13.94 seconds with World Champion Sherry Cervi second in 14.05.