DILLON — It's been a long two years since the College National Finals Rodeo was held, but the unmatched feeling of competing in the crown jewel event of collegiate rodeo is still fresh in the mind of Montana Western's Bryce Harrison.
"I've never experienced something like that before," said Harrison, a junior who transferred this year from Blue Mountain Community College where he competed at the CNFR as a freshman. "The atmosphere, all the good contestants. Just a lot of good people down there and it really pushes you to make you better."
After winning a regional championship in steer wrestling at the Missoula Rodeo on May 4, Harrison punched his ticket to the CNFR, which opens rough stock competition on Sunday and concludes with the championship round on Saturday, June 19 at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper.
A sizable number of Harrison's teammates will be joining him in the chase for individual and team buckles.
Western, whose men's and women's teams placed second in the regional standings, saw a total of 10 athletes qualify for the CNFR.
On the men's side, Harrison will be joined by Brody Smith (bareback), Alonzo Skunkcap (team roping), James Ramirez (team roping), Jake Cerini (team roping) and Ethan Stensrud (tie down roping).
The Western women's team saw Ryland Lufkin, Mikayla Witter and Breanna Jenkins qualify in breakaway roping, while Emily Ilgen advanced in goat tying.
"I'm excited for all of us to see how we do as a team," Lufkin said on Tuesday evening at The Den Steakhouse and Bar where the Bullldogs were having a sendoff party before making the journey to Casper.
"You've got more people cheering you on," Harrison said. "It's just better when you've got more people on your side."
For Smith, who is also making a return trip to the CNFR, his confidence is surging after reaching his goal of winning a a regional saddle in his final season.
"It meant a lot to me to end of winning the region," said Smith, a senior. "It was an awesome feeling to finally get it done."
The CNFR will also be the final go-round for Western head coach Kody Lahaye, who will be moving to Omaha with his wife Justinn at the conclusion of his third season where she will complete an intensive care fellowship at the University of Nebraska.
For Lahaye, who also competed in rodeo as a Bulldog, the decision to step away from his dream job was difficult but it certainly doesn't mean that he's stepping away from the sport forever.
"Rodeo's been a part of my life since I was a little kid so I definitely won't step away," Lahaye said. "Rodeo's been something I've done my whole life so I don't plan on giving it up completely."