By Jack Nowlin
The first round of roughstock competition came to an end Friday at the Junior World Finals presented by Yeti.
Leal’s Junior Bull Riding had its second set of competitors in four age divisions – 10-11, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-18 – while the Junior Roughstock Association crowned champions in junior and novice bareback and novice and senior saddle bronc inside the Wrangler Rodeo Arena in the Las Vegas Convention Center.
There was a familiar face atop the leaderboard in novice saddle bronc as Mason Stuller of Veneta, Oregon, won the first round with an impressive 83-point ride. He placed fourth in novice bareback on Thursday with a 77.5.
Stuller, who is competing in his “fourth or fifth” Junior World Finals, won the senior saddle bronc competition three years ago and was the novice all-around champ last year in Texas.
“I love ‘em both,” Stuller said when asked if he preferred saddle bronc or bareback. “I have ups and downs in both and sometimes one is more fun, but lately they’ve both been going awesome.
“(Thursday) I didn’t draw the horse I wanted and then (Friday) I couldn’t have drawn better and it really made up for it so I’m happy as can be.”
Stuller will have at least two more rides, and more than likely four, this week before heading home to Oregon to finish high school. After that he’ll begin the next phase of his rodeo life.
“I’m graduating early and then I think I’m going to go to school at Western Texas College,” he said.
“And I just turned 18 so at the beginning of the spring I’m going to get my PRCA permit and see if I can try those (rodeos) out.”
For now, though, Stuller is just glad to be back in Vegas. After all, it’s where he expects to be spending 10 days every December once he makes the PRCA circuit.
“Going down to Texas last year was fun,” he said, “but it doesn’t compare to Vegas.”
Also finishing atop the first-round leaderboard Friday were Shane Scott of Ridgefield, Washington, who won senior saddle bronc with a 73; Cash Sellman of San Angelo, Texas who won rookie bareback with a 75. Tyson Schmelzle of Gillette, Wyoming, and Clay Matlock of Valliant, Oklahoma, tied for first in junior bareback with 71-point rides.
Michael Caruso figured as long as he traveled 2,500 miles to compete in the Junior World Finals he might as well make it worth his while.
The 16-year-old bull rider from Pilesgrove Township, New Jersey, did just that Friday, winning the first round of the 16-18 division with an 87-point ride.
It’s not the first time Caruso has competed in the Junior World Finals, but his ride Friday was his best showing in Vegas … so far.
“My first year out here there were a lot of nerves,” Caruso admitted. “I knew these were the best bulls I was going to be competing on and I was going to be competing against the best in the world. And you’re one of the best because you made it here so you’ve got to act like it.”
Even if Caruso and fellow bull riders Nate Bayous (Woodstown, New Jersey) and Cody Heller (Knox, Pennsylvania) are a long ways from home this week, they definitely feel in their element competing in the sport they love.
“It’s the adrenaline,” Caruso said. “And after you make a good ride it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Caruso credits his brother for first getting him interested in bull riding. Aidan Caruso, 19, is currently competing on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit.
“My mom and sisters all ride horses,” Caruso said, “but no one in the family did anything in the bull business at all. But my brother wanted to try it and so he got things started and I just wanted to follow him.
“My dad and my brother got us a practice pen at home and I’ve been riding there to get me ready for this. It just shows that hard work pays off.”
With the second set of competitors competing in each division, there were some changes at the top of the leaderboard.
In addition to Caruso winning the 16-18 division, Jay Nunn of Seminole, Texas, won the 10-11 division with an 84-point ride; and Elijah Jennings of Cleveland, South Carolina, and Noah Lee of Azle, Texas, tied for the top spot in the 12-13 division with 90-point rides. Luke Mackey of Ignacios, Colorado, kept hold of the 14-15 division with his 80-point ride from Thursday.