December 3, 2010--Rookie Night at the 2010 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is slated for Dec. 7, but Round 1 was the night for Wrangler NFR rookies at the Thomas & Mack Center. Wrangler NFR first-timers Joe Gunderson (bareback riding), Billy Bugenig (steer wrestling), Colby Lovell (team roping - heading) and Clif Cooper (tie-down roping) all took home checks for $17,512 after winning the opening round of the 52nd installment of the "Super Bowl of Rodeo" in front of a sold-out crowd of 17,021.
Gunderson, of Agar, S.D., rode Brookman Rodeo's Good Times for 88 points to win the round by 1.5 points ahead of three-time and reigning World Champion Bareback Rider Bobby Mote. He was thrilled to be able to fight through the nerves of appearing in his first Wrangler NFR and earn a go-round buckle.
"This whole year has been a dream come true for me, and I've been fortunate with the way everything's gone," Gunderson said. "I don't have anything to complain about, and the way the Finals have started, it can't get any better than that."
Gunderson got along just fine with Good Times even though he'd never ridden or seen the horse before.
"I'd heard a lot about him, and he's been around forever," Gunderson said. "He used to buck in the saddle bronc riding, and they switched him to the bareback riding. I've heard a lot of talk about him, but never really ever knew what he was."
Bugenig - riding the 2010 AQHA/PRCA Steer Wrestling Horse of the Year, Wick, owned by Wade Sumpter and Ken Lewis - stopped the clock in 3.4 seconds to edge Trevor Knowles by two-tenths of a second. The Ferndale, Calif., bulldogger also was able to fight through first-round jitters and take advantage of his horsepower.
"I was a little nervous before, but when you back into the box, you focus in on the steer and everything feels better," Bugenig said. "Then you're doing what you've done at practice and at other rodeos. (Riding Wick) helps a bunch. You know that if you do your job, he's going to do his job every time, no matter what. With Ken Lewis hazing, it's the same way. You don't have to worry about anyone over there."
Lovell, of Madisonville, Texas, and 17-time Wrangler NFR qualifier Kory Koontz won the team roping in 4.1 seconds, five-tenths of a second ahead of the team of Charly Crawford and Russell Cardoza.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," Lovell said. "Last night, I was in my room thinking about it, and I was hoping it would go well because I've had so many Facebook messages, so many texts, so many calls, so many people from back home are backing me. This was the first year I tried to make the NFR, and the first year I headed at any pro rodeos, so I was hoping I could start out with a bang and show everybody that I do belong here."
Koontz, of Sudan, Texas, was pleased to be able to help his Wrangler NFR rookie partner earn a win in his first run in Las Vegas.
"It's always nice to win," Koontz said. "Colby kind of reminds me of me when I was young; he doesn't lack for confidence. But, I know it will help his outlook on the whole week. Sometimes when you don't do well, it starts to get to you. His enthusiasm has put a spark in me all year long. I kind of needed that to get me going again."
In the tie-down roping, Wrangler NFR rookie Clif Cooper - one of three Cooper brothers competing in the tie-down roping in Las Vegas - won Round 1 with a 7.9-second run. The Decatur, Texas, cowboy's time was a full second faster than Trent Creager and earned Cooper a go-round championship buckle.
"Man, I was telling my brother out back right before I roped that I wasn't nervous, for some reason," said Cooper, who rode his 14-year-old horse, Money, in Round 1. "It really surprised me, because I thought I'd have those jitters, those butterflies. I prepared really, really hard, and I felt good. My only weakness is with short runs like this, where you have to run at the barrier. With that short run, you've got to run at it really fast, and I just tried to turn that into something I've become comfortable with."
Saddle bronc rider Jesse Kruse knows all about excelling at his first Wrangler NFR. The Great Falls, Mont., cowboy won his first world title a year ago in his first qualification, and he picked up right where he left off by winning Round 1. Kruse scored 87 points on D&amp;H Cattle's Lipstick &amp; Whiskey, just a half-point better than Wade Sundell's score.