The toughest showcase of breakaway roping in the nation was born in 1969 in Deadwood, South Dakota, when the College National Finals Rodeo added it. Exactly 50 times now, the nation’s top female calf ropers have come together every June from Central Washington to Southwest Texas and Central Arizona to East Mississippi to battle it out for the true designation of “best in the world.”
Only Sabrina Pike, Jean (Fuchs) Poythress and Lari Dee Guy have won the coveted national breakaway championship more than once, and a select few have come oh-so-close. These are the legends; the standouts; the GOATs.
“The College Finals is the cream of the crop; the best in the business,” says Jackie (Hobbs) Crawford, who won the 2003 CNFR for Vernon College as a sophomore, then placed second as a senior for Tarleton State University in 2005. “That was my first major win on a big platform. It solidified what I’d been trying to accomplish; why I came to Texas. That was a huge deal for me, to have left Oklahoma despite full-ride offers close to home. I was ridiculed a little bit for going down to Texas because I wanted to be among the best. And freshman year, I got humbled! I got my butt kicked; I didn’t even make the top ten in that region. You learn, though. And being able to win that was really redeeming.”
To win the championship once is difficult. To do it (almost) twice is truly remarkable. Aside from just qualifying every year, Crawford says the four rounds throw a lot of variables into the mix, and today there are so many more tough ropers that it gets harder to repeat. She’s quick to point out, though, that it’s “no tougher in Casper than it was 30 years ago in Bozeman.”
Arizona’s Shannon (Lord) Matheson nearly won it all twice, also. For Southwestern Oklahoma State, she split second in the breakaway in 1988 and came back in ’89 to not only win the breakaway, but place third in the team roping average with Nick Sarchett to clinch the all-around title, too. That was the year eventual NFR heeler Chris Green won the team roping with Rod Easley.
What does it take to dominate like that? The ’80s ladies had to rely more on hard work and killer instincts, because there was nowhere to rope until they turned at least 15. Matheson had that killer instinct in droves. She still remembers telling her then-boyfriend, Ken, prior to that short round that she was going to spin the heck out of one for Sarchett and draw a dirty knot on her calf, and she did. She and Ken have been married now 30 years, raised twin boys, and own a property management company in Phoenix when they’re not team roping.
Let’s go back to the earliest killer instincts in this sport. Nobody has ever placed as high four years in a row at the CNFR as the legendary Betty Gayle Cooper (Ratcliff). For Eastern New Mexico University, she placed third at Bozeman in 1971, won it in ’72, placed third in ’73, and split third again in ’74. That has never been accomplished again–although Guy won it twice and placed second once.
Early on, Sally Preston of Tarleton State College, as it was called then, won the very first title given out in 1969 and placed third in ’70. Jimmie Gibbs placed twice in the early ’70s for Sam Houston State. Karen Cochran of Texas Tech won the nation in 1987 and placed fifth in ’88, while Tibba Smith placed twice for Western Texas College and once for Tarleton State in the early ’00s. That’s tough.
Throw in those gals who were also wicked goat-tyers and you get fearsome names like Caryn (Standifer) Snyder of Southeastern Oklahoma State, who split the breakaway championship at the 1997 CNFR after she’d placed third in ’95 and third in ’96. Did we mention she also won the goat tying in ’95 and won the barrel racing in ’96? A true all-around terror.
And Nora Hunt (Lee) of West Hills College and UNLV came along on her heels, placing in the top ten of the breakaway in ’97, ’99, and ’01 while also placing in the goat tying each of those years. They belong in exclusive company with the likes of Sabrina Pike, “when cowgirls were really cowgirls,” according to Jayne (Gentry) Green.
Toughest of the Toughs
Green, who is Denny Gentry’s cousin from west Texas, placed second to Poythress in the breakaway at the ’81 CNFR and placed second again to Pike in ’82 before finally clinching it all in 1983 for Sul Ross State University.
“I was the first woman to ever team rope at the CNFR,” says Green. “I placed with Ty Springer in Bozeman.”
Green, who dominated the college breakaway ranks on her brother’s calf horse, pursued amateur rodeos after college and made the NARC Finals, but says the money just wasn’t there. She was a teacher for 32 years before becoming an equine dentist, and she and her husband continue to team rope together. Her view on what it takes to dominate the College Finals?
“You know, you take one calf at a time, do the best you can on each one and, with God’s grace, you’re blessed and you win it,” says Green. “Every time you back in the box it’s a blessing, and more so as you get older!”
Green can remember being friends with the Guy family, and says that when Lari Dee was “a little bitty girl” she could be found running around with the likes of Green and Pike.
Sabrina Pike, a New Mexico native, won her national breakaway championships in 1980 and ’82 for Southeastern Oklahoma State. Word has it that Pike roped her 1979 short-round calf to win it all, too, but her slack came down in a dally around her horn and her rope didn’t break away for a while, so she fell to third that year.
When Poythress describes Pike as “a hand,” she uses all capital letters. The Berthoud, Colorado, native won her titles in 1978 and ’81 for Chadron State College and the University of Wyoming. Poythress, now from Hico, Texas, rode mares that she and her sister trained by her father’s stallion, Quarters Hancock. While she says her wins came courtesy of how well she rode a barrier and how rarely she missed, Poythress says those traits didn’t look evident at the recent Tarleton State rodeo she watched.
“Those girls are fast but not very consistent,” she says. “A lot of them rope well, but can’t rope a whole bunch in a row. They just sling it and pray they catch. That doesn’t work on four head. And you have to be able to score. I watched almost 500 girls rope at the American Semifinals and most have no clue how to score. They nodded and rode and hoped they got out.”
Poythress, 62, is a big Madison Outhier fan because the teen catches so consistently. If Outhier, the champ of the 2019 RFD-TV’s The American (worth $110,000) and the 2020 Women’s Rodeo World Championships (worth $60,000), decides to go to college, CNFR records could fall. Of course, a girl like Outhier has had far more opportunities to hone her craft.
“Girls don’t realize how good they have it now,” said Poythress. “For my sister’s first two years of college, girls weren’t allowed to team rope. Nobody knows that. The summer of my senior year in high school, I wanted to team rope at amateur rodeos in Nebraska with Norm Cotton and I had to fight for them to let me in the team roping.”
Jean, a former teacher who’s been married to Gary Poythress almost 35 years, was the only girl on the Chadron rodeo team as a freshman. Then she was joined by eventual NFR barrel racer Martee (Meter) Pruitt and eventual CNFR breakaway champ Kathy Kennedy and the team of three won 11 of 13 rodeos in that region her sophomore year.
Hands-Down Best Ever
Pike and Poythress were forerunners to 50-year-old Lari Dee Guy, one of the best who has ever played the breakaway game. In 1991, UNLV’s Sonya Cosse barely edged Guy in Bozeman on three, but Guy had the most points in the nation on the year to win the title. In 1992, national all-around champ Brenda Mays of Walla Walla Community College got Guy by about a second on three calves in Bozeman and by just 124 points on the year (Mays had also split second at the ’90 CNFR). Then finally, in 1993 for Texas Tech, Guy smoked it on three calves in 9.10 seconds to win the whole shebang the first year the CNFR was sudden-death.
Mays, 52, is better known now as a six-time NFR barrel racer than she is for being the calf roper who poured the most heat on Guy in college.
“Brenda is straight cowgirl,” says Guy. “She’s still very handy. I saw her the other day in Red Bluff.”
Guy recalls the massive prestige of the college championships, and boils her success down to a good old horse that helped her believe in herself again.
“My freshman year in college, I got my butt handed to me in the region,” recalls Guy. “I was riding a 4-year-old mare. Then my dad bought me David Porter’s 16-year-old calf horse out of Louisiana that had quit working the rope. When I got Rodney, the next three years were a lot better to me. It made all the difference. That horse gave me all the confidence.”
Guy, who also won a reserve championship in goat tying and made the short round one year at Bozeman with Rich Skelton in team roping, remembers her peers in the all-around ranks, like Snyder and Pike, with awe.
“There were so many great hands,” she says. “It’s crazy.”
In statistic-land, Guy’s two titles and one reserve championship put her on par with Pike, certainly, and some would say even above what Betty Gayle Cooper-Ratliff did in Bozeman. One thing neither Cooper-Ratliff nor Guy – the two greatest breakaway ropers of all time – ever had to do was sit out a year because of a pandemic.
Meanwhile, returning college standouts like New Mexico State’s Bethanie Shofner and Chadron State’s Quincy Segelke, who both earned money at CNFR 2019 but didn’t win it all, are no doubt itching to get back to Casper to put those killer instincts on the line. Regardless, Guy’s record as the last to repeat those elusive collegiate bragging rights still appears safe–and remarkable, 28 years later. BRJ