If Wyoming is the “Cowboy State,” let’s call Utah the “Cowgirl State.”
Kaytlyn Miller, Rylee White, McKinley Drake and the rest of the high school cowgirls from Utah are building a strong case.
For the second consecutive year, Utah captured the team championship at the National High School Finals Rodeo, outpointing runner-up Nebraska by nearly 300 points, beating third-place California by 415 points and trouncing once-mighty Texas by 940 points.
“We had our teeth gritted the whole time,” said White, who made a name for herself in her NHSFR debut. “We all said, ‘Let’s go in there and show ‘em what the Utah girls are all about’ and that’s what we did.”
It was a pair of contestants from opposite corners of the state, Dammeron Valley’s Miller and Neola’s White, who led Utah’s charge at the weeklong national finals, which ended July 23.
Miller followed her 2015 breakthrough with another spectacular showing, rallying in the final go to win the national title in goat tying and placing ninth in barrel racing to finish as reserve all-around cowgirl.
A year after Miller won all-around rookie cowgirl at the national finals, White did the same, sharing the honor with Nevada’s Julianne Montero. She finished second to Louisiana’s Brooklyn Gunter in pole bending.
The Utah girls also received standout performances from Drake, a junior-to-be at Desert Hills High School in St. George who finished fourth in the queen contest; Plain City’s Kami Singleton, who claimed fourth in trap shooting; Morgan’s Sayge Madsen, who rode to fifth place in poles; St. George’s Kassie Cattoor, also from Desert Hills, who ended up 15th in breakaway roping; and Honeyville’s Hayden Madsen, who finished 19th in barrel racing.
“We kind of go into it butting heads, wanting to beat each other, because we know Utah is one of the best. But once we’re there, we’re on the same team and we’re cheering for each other,” said Miller, who attends Enterprise High School. “We just have a lot of aggressive girls. They all go for it. I just love our girls from Utah!”
Miller went for it in the short go on goat tying — and surprised even herself by walking out of the CAM-PLEX in Gillette, Wyoming, with a national title to show for it.
Sitting in sixth place, a full second off the lead, Miller said she was more focused on winning the final go, believing her chances were slim of leapfrogging five other cowgirls.
“There was no way in heck I thought I could pull it off,” she said.
But, Miller turned in her fastest run of the week, 6.82 seconds, and then watched it hold up by the narrowest of margins. She edged Nebraska cowgirl Libby Winchell, a friend who led entering the short go, by five-hundredths of a second.
“That girl has got crazy talent,” White said of Miller, who placed among the top 10 in three events as an NHSFR rookie last year, including a national title in breakaway. “She’s got this, ‘I-got-this attitude,’ and she really does.”
How good is Miller? In barrel racing, she claimed a top-10 finish … riding another cowgirl’s horse.
When her horse was injured, Miller said her best friend, Taylour Latham, agreed to lend her horse for nationals.
“I’m beyond thankful,” Miller said.
While Miller soaked up the spotlight for the second consecutive year, White stepped into it for the first time.
“It was probably the best experience of my life,” she said.
In her favorite event, poles, White strung together three solid runs, missing a national championship by less than six-tenths of a second.
“After I finished second in the world, I was like, ‘That really just happened,’” recalled White, who attends Union High School in Roosevelt.
Of tying for all-around rookie cowgirl, White said, “I didn’t even ever imagine winning that.”
The first Miss Utah High School Rodeo Queen from the southern part of the state in nearly 30 years, according to Utah High School Rodeo Association records, Drake nearly added a national title to her resume.
In Gillette, Drake finished just 30 points behind the winner, Montana’s Opal Harkins.
“Nationals was a blast. I had so much fun. I don’t even know what else to say about it,” the St. George cowgirl said.
Her coronation at the Utah State Finals was equally thrilling.
“When I was waiting for the coronation, I had no idea if I had won it or not. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!’” she recalled.
With a laugh, Drake added, “I’m not kidding you, I couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. One of my friends was next to me and was telling me, ‘Just breathe, just breathe.’”
The defending champion Utah boys finished in third place at the 2016 national finals, led by Milford’s Ryder Wright (2nd, saddle bronc riding), Hurricane’s Levi Vigoren (4th, shooting) and Vernal’s Brody Woods (4th, cutting).
Seven other cowboys — Santaquin’s Jerin Hone (6th, trap shooting), Roosevelt’s Cooper Bennett (7th, bareback riding), Oakley’s Kyler Dick (8th, steer wrestling), Milford’s Stetson Wright (8th, saddle bronc), Enterprise’s Troy Flanigan (9th, shooting), Bluffdale’s Dawson Zaharias (10th, cutting) and Kamas’ Quinn Gillett (10th, shooting) — recorded top-10 finishes in their respective events.
While the Utah boys will seek to reclaim the national title next year, the girls’ sights are set on a three-peat.
“Right on! That’s what we want,” White said.
Added Miller, “Heck yeah, let’s win again!”
Follow Spectrum Media executive editor Steve Kiggins on Twitter, @scoopskiggy. Call him at 435-674-6230.
Utah at NHSFR
National team champions: 1996, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2015
Boys’ national team champions: 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2015
Girls’ national team champions: 2006, 2008, 2015, 2016
2016-17 UHSRA schedule
Aug. 19-20 – Oakley; Aug. 26-27 – Vernal; Sept. 9-10 – Panguitch; Sept. 16-17 – Salina; Sept. 23-24 – Cedar City; Nov. 11-12 – St. George; Nov. 18-19 – St. George; Nov. 25-26 – St. George.
April 1-2 – Ogden; April 8 – Price; April 9 – Castledale; April 15 – Logan; April 16 – Tremonton; April 22-23 – Tooele; April 29 – Nephi; April 30 – Spanish Fork; May 6 – Morgan; May 7 – Heber City; May 13-14 – Delta; June 1-4 – UHSRA State Finals, Heber City.