Tim O’Connell took time out of his busy week in Las Vegas to check in on the future of his sport Sunday. The three-time world bareback riding champion (2016-18) was at the Junior World Finals at the Convention Center, offering advice to young bareback riders behind the bucking chutes and even helping retrieve cowboy hats from the arena.

“I think it means just as much to me to compete at the Thomas & Mack as it does for them to be here,” O’Connell said. “This is the top level of their game … they’re in Vegas and they’re competing for a world championship.”

Tim O’Connell doing some arena pickup Sunday.

So is O’Connell. He is currently fourth in the average at the National Finals Rodeo and sixth in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings.

Sunday, though, was a chance for O’Connell to refuel before Round 4 of the NFR while still being around the sport he loves. The Junior World Finals presented O’Connell a chance to evaluate the sport at the grass-roots level. It’s an opportunity that was never really presented to O’Connell, 30, when he was growing up.

“When I was growing up it wasn’t until high school rodeo that I really had a chance to do anything like this,” O’Connell said. “These kids have a chance to compete in an association and that’s huge.

“Bareback riding is a hard event to learn,” he added. “So to have stock that these kids can learn on and to get the feel for the crowd in a championship moment is just as crucial as playing pee-wee football. Every other sport has youth leagues that makes kids learn the fundamentals and we need that in rodeo.

“Because if we don’t have youth we don’t have a future.”

Tyson Schmelzle showed Sunday that the sport’s future might be in good shape.

The 13-year-old junior bareback rider from Gillette, Wyoming, tied for the first-round win with a 71-point ride. Schmelzle was even better Sunday, scoring 86.5 points to win the round and lead the average with 157.5 points on two head. Clay Matlock of valiant, Oklahoma, is second with 148.

“It was a great horse that stacked up right underneath me,” Schmelzle said. “It was a fun ride, but I just take every one like it’s any other horse and just do my job.”

Obviously the formula has worked for Schmelzle, who is competing in his fourth Junior World Finals and finished third in the world last year. The seventh grader expects to start competing in junior high rodeo this spring. Following that, Schmelzle envisions trips to the National High School Finals Rodeo, the College National Finals Rodeo and, eventually, the National Finals Rodeo.

“I just love bareback riding,” he said. “Nobody else in my family ever rode bareback, but I was just drawn to it. It’s the best thing when (the horse) comes right underneath you and you give it a lick.”

Leading the way

Sunday marked the end of the first two rounds of roughstock competition, with the final round set for Monday inside the Wrangler Rodeo Arena.

In addition to Schmelzle, other bareback average leaders are Tucker Box from Ethelsville, Alabama, in the rookie division; Collin Roland from Childersburg, Alabama, in the senior division; and Kooper Heimburg from San Tan Valley, Arizona, in the novice division.

Tyson Schmelzle from Gillette, Wyoming (in red), talks with other competitors following his 86.5-point bareback ride on Sunday.

Saddle bronc average leaders are Wade Magner from Breda, Iowa, in the rookie division; Zane Magner from Breda, Iowa, in the junior division; Shane Scott from Ridgefield, Washington, in the senior division; and Mason Stuller from Veneta, Oregon, in the novice division.

And in bull riding, the average leaders are JW Nunn from Seminole, Texas, in the 10-11 division; Elijah Jennings from Cleveland, South Carolina, in the 12-13 division; Marco Rizzo fro Quitman, Georgia, in the 14-15 division; and Michael Caruso from Pilesgrove Township, New Jersey, in the 16-18 divisiuon.

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