Heading in hot
Shaun Stroh is a soft-spoken cowboy whose tones don't differentiate much whether he's ecstatic or irritated.
He's an aw-shucks, church-going man with a loving wife who keeps him in line -- even when he's on the road and she's thousands of miles away -- and five kids who keep him hopping when he's at home.
So, forgive the Dickinson saddle bronc rider if he brushes off his performance in September -- perhaps the most astounding month any cowboy in any event on the professional rodeo circuit had this year -- as nothing more than luck and timing.
Before Labor Day weekend, Stroh didn't think qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo was a possibility.
On Thursday night, he'll strap in at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for his fourth career turn at rodeo's Super Bowl hoping there's still a little fire left in his hot streak.
"I was just truly blessed I guess would be the best way to put it," Stroh said. "There's too many things that had to go right in a certain order. It just doesn't happen. Ever."
Well it did happen, and to one of the more unassuming bronc riders on the circuit.
In early September, with less than a month remaining in the 2009 regular season, Stroh was 22nd in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's saddle bronc riding standings and his year looked to be wrapping up.
Before the end of month, he had won $48,356 on eight rides and moved to eighth in the standings with $82,159, effectively qualifying him for the NFR.
"It was pretty amazing," said Dusty Hausauer, a professional saddle bronc rider from Dickinson and one of Stroh's traveling partners.
Stroh's astounding run began on Sept. 7 with an 88-point ride in at the prestigious Ellensburg (Wash.) Rodeo. That earned him $3,856. Four days later in Lewiston, Idaho, Stroh scored another 88 on Surprise Party, the 2008 bucking horse of the year. That pocketed him $4,075 and the chase for the NFR was back on.
Stroh squeaked into the final eight in Puyallup, Wash., only to win the semifinals, the finals and $15,138.
Still, he remained on the NFR bubble.
Stroh stayed hot and won money in the next four rodeos he entered: Salt Lake City ($127), Pendleton, Ore. ($4,520), Bowman ($1,062) and Albuquerque, N.M. ($1,956).
Yet he needed another big payday to secure his spot and hold off a tight chase that saw bronc riders between the Nos. 11 and 23 spots heading into September all vying for the final five of the NFR's 15 qualifying spots.
"The numbers were so tight, money-wise, between so many guys that everybody had to go all the way to the end because nobody was really safe," Stroh said.
So Stroh and several others positioned themselves for a final showdown the final weekend of September at the lucrative River City Roundup in Omaha Neb.
Stroh wavered a little, but not enough to slow him down.
He tied for second in the second round ($3,784) and tied for fifth in the average ($1,056), putting him into the semifinals and the shot at bigger payouts.
He won the semifinals ($6,160) and took third in the finals ($6,626), giving him a season-high $17,622 in earnings for the weekend.
"He really capitalized on the chances he had. He some good chances and he made 'em work," Hausauer said. "It was phenomenal to watch. Just everywhere he went, if he had a chance, he won some money and that's what you've got to do. That's what separates him from a lot of guys is when he had the chance, he took advantage of it."
Stroh wrapped up the month with a little panache too.
A bronc had mangled Stroh's saddle following his win in the semifinals and forced him to borrow a saddle of Alberta cowboy Dustin Flaundra, ironically another bronc rider on the NFR bubble at the time.
Re-rides forced Stroh to get on three different broncs in the finals before he finally held on for an 83 on his third attempt.
The weekend put Stroh over the top while others weren't so fortunate.
Hausauer, who was ranked as high as sixth during the regular season, dropped to 16th -- one place out of the NFR -- despite numerous attempts to qualify in the final days of the season.
Regardless of his finish, Hausauer said watching Stroh find his groove pushed him to keep working despite some tough luck.
"I had some trouble there at the end," Hausauer said. "To watch him, that actually helped me out toward the end too. When somebody in the truck is doing that good, you don't ever get down, and it was good to watch and it helped me out quite a bit too."
Likewise, Stroh said he might not have kept fighting for the NFR had Hausauer not been at his side encouraging him to enter some of the late-season events.
"I was down to four or five weeks and I was so far out, money-wise, that I didn't really have a shot unless things went as good as they did, which doesn't happen," Stroh said. "Having Dusty as close as he was, that was the main reason I was still going. There was just two of us in the rig and he was going good so I was just going to stick with it until he was done. The coin kind of flipped and he started going the other way."
Stroh's finish was miles away from the rest of his summer. Early in the season, he knew things could be a little rough.
"When you show up and your buddies are laughing at you because you're there, you know you didn't get a very good one (bronc)," Stroh said.
He contemplated a layoff after injuring his leg when a horse blew up on him in the chute in mid-June at a rodeo in Livermore, Calif.
"I should have come home. I stayed out there and kept going and darn sure didn't win anything," Stroh said.
That all changed in September.
All signs point to money winnings leader Jesse Kruse of Great Falls, Mont., as the favorite to win the saddle bronc world title.
Stroh, because of his late-season run, is more of a Cinderella. And he's been to the NFR enough to know when the chute opens for the first time, the regular season doesn't really matter.
"You don't really change your game plan at all from day to day or month to month," Stroh said. "You may be a little more excited getting on some of them when you know you've got a good horse drawn. But it still comes down to the basics -- one horse at a time, one jump at a time."