GREAT FALLS — Much has changed since the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals began in 1979, but a familiar feeling prevailed on Sunday afternoon as the 41st annual event concluded at Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Seasons Arena.
That’s because hometown hero Jesse Kruse of Great Falls, recently crowned world champion Ty Erickson of Helena, and awesome all-around hand Hank Hollenbeck of Molt produced thunderous ovations once again.
In fact, it’s beginning to sound like a broken record.
Kruse, the 2009 world champion in the bronc riding, clinched the year-end circuit championship in saddle bronc for the fourth time in the last five years and the sixth time overall.
Erickson, who last month won his first PRCA gold buckle in the steer wrestling, won the year-end bulldogging title for the fifth time in the last decade.
And Hollenbeck once again rose to the top of the Treasure State professional cowboy world.
Hollenbeck’s year-end all-around circuit title was his fifth in the last six years. The 35-year-old Molt rancher has reigned above the rest in recent years for the coveted all-around crown.
“It’s truly special,” said Hollenbeck. “I try to do a lot of events and have good horses. It takes a team to do it. And there’s a lot of spinning wheels. They’ve all got to keep moving.”
Hollenbeck finished the weekend with Sunday’s clutch 10.7-second in the tie-down roping, which cinched checks both in the go-round and the average.
Hollenbeck didn’t win any cash in steer wrestling at the MPRF, but it didn’t matter. He’d earned significant money throughout the circuit season and once again turned the summer-long trek into a circuit championship.
Year-end titles and Montana Pro Rodeo Finals average winners earned trips to the lucrative Ram National Circuit Finals, which is the first week of April in Kissimmee, Fla. The athletes must have entered enough rodeos throughout the 2019 Montana circuit season in order to qualify for trips to the Ram Finals.
Among the year-end winners who emerged Sunday were Tristan Hansen of Dillon (bareback), Brady Tryan of Huntley (team roping header), Justin Viles of Cody, Wyo. (team roping heeling), Ty Erickson of Helena (steer wrestling), Jesse Kruse of Great Falls (saddle bronc), Lindsay Kruse of Great Falls (barrel racing), Bryce Bott o Manhattan (tie-down roping) and Payton Fitzpatrick of Polson (bull riding).
Among the MPRF average winners were Wyatt Bloom (bareback), Radley Day and Taylor Williams (team roping), Erickson (steer wrestling), Houston Brown (saddle bronc), Trevin Baumann (tie-down roping), Tara Stimpson (barrel racing) and Connor Murnion (bull riding).
Gerald Eash of Trego and Luke Gee of Stanford finished 1-2 in the MPRF all-around standings.
Sunday’s go-round winners included Trevor McAllister of Polson and Hansen (87 points apiece in bareback), brothers Derick and Brett Fleming of Worden (6.2 seconds in team roping), Will Stovall of Roberts, Newt Novich of Twin Bridges and Ty Erickson (3.7 seconds apiece in steer wrestling), Sage Newman of Melstone (81 points in saddle bronc), Bryce Bott of Manhattan (8.9 seconds in tie-down roping), Madison Wilkerson of Bozeman (13.12 seconds in barrel racing) and Connor Murnion of Jordan (86.5 points in bull riding).
Sunday marked the second time in the last five years the Kruse family earned a pair of year-end circuit championship saddles.
“I feel pretty blessed,” said Lindsay Kruse, who has just a stupendous summer aboard her swift horse “CG” that the championship was a forgone conclusion before the weekend started. “You just feel very fortunate.”
The Kruse family includes three young children, including a daughter, Harlow, who is just a year old.
“You want all the kids to be able to see that part of our lives,” Lindsay said of the rodeo careers than she and Jesse have. “And you never know if they will. So we really feel blessed.”
Her husband echoed those thoughts. And Jesse also send a tribute to the late Jim Croff, the former saddle bronc star and Montana Circuit president who passed away last summer and to whose memory the 41st MPRF was dedicated.
“To tell you the truth,” said Jesse Kruse. “I give it all to Jim. He’s the one who helped me get started. I wouldn’t the bronc rider I am without Jim.”
In the team roping, Brady Tryan extended a family tradition with a year-end circuit championship. His older brothers Clay, a two-time world champion, and Travis have combined for several circuit titles. Their father, Dennis, is considered won seven championships during his own brilliant circuit career.
“This is a fun week, to be here with my brother (Travis) and my wife (Callahan, who competed in barrel racing),” Brady said. Then he laughed.
“Everybody else in the family is even more excited about (the upcoming trip to the Ram Finals in Florida) than I have.”
Erickson, meanwhile, has become a machine in the bulldogging world. The state of Montana has a rich history in the event, and Erickson deserves mention with many of the greats who have set the steer wrestling pace.
“It’s so much more than just me,” said Erickson, 29. “You have to have a great team behind you and I’ve really had that all year.”
He referred to “Crush,” his 8-year-old black gelding, and several buddies who serve as solid hazing partners.
To be sure, though, Erickson deserves mention with the all-time bulldogging greats in the Treasure State. On Friday he tied the Four Seasons Arena record - a mark established by Jerry Small and tied by Brad Gleason - with a 3.3-second effort.
Erickson then followed with splendid times of 3.6 and 3.7 seconds.
“I’ve been very blessed to ride good horses, and we couldn’t do our job without good hazers,” Erickson said.
The city of Helena has produced many fine bulldoggers. Erickson is at the top of the list.
“To be mentioned with guys like Shannon Blixt, Rod Lyman (of Great Falls) or Brad Gleason - any of those guys - it’s quite the honor. And I take it to heart. It’s awesome.”
Sunday’s finale at the 41st MPRF unfolded before a crowd of more than 3,000 at Four Seasons. For decades, the Montana event has set a standard of excellence in the PRCA circuit system. It’s a reputation that’s well-deserved.
“You can’t beat this Montana Circuit,” said bareback star Tristan Hansen, who grew up in Idaho and was a college star at Montana Western. He now lives in Dillon and has declared the Treasure State his home, with two consecutive year-end circuit bareback championships to show for it.
“It’s such a great circuit and such great stock contractors,” he said. “You’ve got Kesler, you’ve got J-Bar-J, you’ve got Wade Sankey and Brookman ... all these horses are just outstanding.”
The Circuit Finals, directed by a board led by president Jack Stensland of Wolf Point, will return to Great Falls and Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Seasons Arena in January of 2021.