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NFR goal spurs UNLV cowboys

Prineville is a city in Crook County, Ore., named for the merchant Barney Prine back in the late 1800s. It has a population of less than 10,000, and on the day of his high school graduation, Christian Radabaugh celebrated with 139 other seniors. His closest neighbor lived nearly two miles away.

I’m guessing there was also a sheriff named Andy and a barber named Floyd.

“Here (in Las Vegas), you can throw a rock and hit your neighbor’s house,” Radabaugh said. “It was a huge culture shock at first, but has been a great experience. I knew the program was very successful. I knew it was the winningest team at UNLV.”

No, he doesn’t play basketball.

He wrestles and ropes steers.

Fourteen national championships. Twenty-five regional championships. Winning belt buckles by the dozens. UNLV athletics might be defined by those who shoot jumpers and grab rebounds, but no team on campus has produced more success than those who rodeo.

Radabaugh is a senior who competes for a program that has existed since 1992, a history major who grew up on his family’s farm wanting to spend his college days elsewhere and hoping to one day reach what is every rodeo cowboy’s dream.

“Down there,” he said Friday night, pointing toward the dirt floor of the Thomas & Mack Center, where the National Finals Rodeo is held annually, where the best of the best compete each December.

It’s a long way and thousands of miles and tens of thousands of dollars between standing at a booth to promote UNLV rodeo and wrestling steers for world championship buckles, but this is the road most college rodeo athletes desire to travel.

Rodeo often is named on lists of obscure college sports, sanctioned by the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association and one at UNLV that raises as much as $60,000 a year in scholarships through fundraising and help from Las Vegas Events.

UNLV’s roster includes men and women from Nevada and California and Oregon and Idaho. It practices at the Rockin’ K Arena, 18 miles from campus and where horses are boarded and athletes work every Tuesday and Thursday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., where kids whose peers have no idea there is a rodeo team at UNLV put in countless hours of work.

Would the average student at UNLV rather have lunch with freshman basketball star Anthony Bennett or Christian Radabaugh?

“Anthony Bennett,” Christian said.

Who would Radabaugh rather have lunch with?

“Anthony Bennett.”

They compete in 10 or so rodeos during the school year, a major one coming each April at the South Point. The college finals are in Casper, Wyo., and this is the first season in what seems like forever that UNLV doesn’t have an athlete from Canada.

Midway through this season, both the men and women rank first in the regional standings.

They seem to Rope and Tie As One.

“We have been pretty fortunate over the years, pretty successful, ” rodeo coach Ric Griffith said. “We mostly recruit off videos kids send us, and we know a lot of parents through high school rodeos. If we had the room and funds for it, we could easily have 100 kids on the team. But we usually have between 15 to 20 and get them as much help financially for school as we can.

“It’s a lot of hard work to do this. They all want to reach (the NFR). It’s not cheap. They try and get sponsors once out of school. People want to help. I’ve never known a rodeo cowboy not to help each other. It’s like a trailer breaking down on the side of the road – you stop and help. That’s how these kids were raised. They try and help everyone they can. That’s just the way it is.”

How does it feel having so many national championships in the past two decades while Dave Rice dreams of his first as a coach?

“Don’t get me in trouble now,” Griffith said.

Come on. I live to get others in such trouble.

You have to love this name for a cowgirl: Tyla Treasure.

She is a junior majoring in civil engineering who competes in team roping and breakaway roping and barrel racing and goat tying. She grew up in California around racetracks where her father shoed horses, the daughter of former high school rodeo competitors from rural Idaho.

She also receives typical cheesy pickup lines from male students.

“You know, things like if I’m going to lasso them or tie them up,” Treasure said. “Most students have never heard of our team. They’re shocked we’re a team and not just a club.

“But it’s a tough sport and an expensive one for things like gas to travel to rodeos and taking care of our horses. … Of course, the goal is making (the NFR). Isn’t it every barrel racer’s dream?”

That’s not the important question.

This is: She has a choice for a lunch companion … Anthony Bennett or a cowboy?

(Insert long, dramatic pause here.)

“Well,” Treasure said, “there are a lot of good cowboys out there.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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