Special to The Community News
As the late rock legend Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part.
No one knows that better than Leighton Berry, a sophomore standout on the Weatherford College rodeo team. Berry, a hometown Weatherford product, fought back from a shoulder injury as a freshman to earn a berth in this year’s College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyoming, June 9-15.
He is one of seven members of the WC program making the trip as qualifiers, the most the school has ever sent, extending a streak of 15 years in which WC has qualified at least one athlete for the elite event.
“The comeback was tough at first. Missing the first three college rodeos [of 2018-19] really made me turn the switch on, though,” Berry said. “I knew there was no room for error, and I had to lay down all my cards every time I showed up.
“I’ve never been one to look at an injury in a negative way. I always get to slow things down and really learn new stuff while I recover. I am going to do everything I can to stay healthy and take care of my body for years to come.”
Berry qualified as the reserve champion (runner-up) in the Southwest Region after winning the final rodeo at Tarleton State University, along with the Mike Brown Memorial Buckle. He also won a Polaris ATV in a drawing amongst competitors in Stephenville.
“LB is having an outstanding year both in college and lately in pro rodeo. He is peaking just at the right time,” Weatherford College Coach Johnny Emmons said. “He has come a long way since his first semester last year, and we all have high hopes for him in Casper.”
Joining Berry in Casper will be sophomore Bristan Kennedy, who won the Southwest Region barrel racing championship, and her horse, Ci Ci, was named the region’s Women’s Horse of the Year. She is the lone member of the Lady Coyotes making the trip.
“Qualifying for the college finals is a huge blessing. There are many people who never get this chance, so I feel very thankful to have this opportunity,” said Kennedy, who finished sixth in the region last season. “To be able to qualify while rodeoing for Weatherford College only makes it that much better.”
“Bristan has an outstanding horse in Ci Ci,” Emmons said. “She’s brought that horse along nicely for the last couple of years or so, and just like LB, they are peaking at a great time. Hopefully Ci Ci likes the arena conditions there in Casper, because there’s no doubt she has the speed to win.”
Also representing the Coyotes in Casper will be freshman Kasen Brennise, who won the regional title in tiedown roping. Teammate Chantz Webster, sophomore, finished third to earn his spot.
Three team ropers are making the trip, including defending regional champion sophomore Lane Cooper. Sophomore Kade Smith and freshman Blake Bentley finished second in the region to qualify after winning the final event at Tarleton.
Bentley also bounced back from an injury last season, one that forced him to redshirt his entire true freshman season. He fell off the back of a truck in late 2017, injuring his brain and breaking several bones.
“It’s special. It’s been a goal of mine to come back and qualify,” Bentley said. “There was a good chance I’d never rope again.
“It’s cool to be a part of continuing this tradition.”
“Blake has had a good comeback from his accident last year,” Emmon said. “He has roped very well all year long, and he and Kade will have a good chance at the CNFR.”
Despite his injury as a freshman, Berry still managed a fifth-place finish in the region in bareback riding in 2018. He said that only fired him up even more this season.
“I was very unsatisfied when I didn’t make the college finals because I knew I was capable of doing it,” he said. “The Southwest Region is one of the toughest college rodeo regions in the world, and you have to do well consistently in order to make it to Casper.
“Coming into my sophomore year, I was healthy and prepared to win under any circumstance. I am feeling confident and ready to cross the finish line.”
Emmons noted that the experience of Cooper as the only CNFR returner will be valuable in several ways.
“I am excited to have Lane up there,” he said. “With his experience and leadership, he will not only have a great chance himself, but he will also be valuable to the rest of the team in helping them prepare for what’s coming.”
In addition, he said the experience of winning state championships in Colorado and Texas will be a big plus to Brennise and Webster.
“I am looking forward to what these guys can do in Casper. Both have proven to be winners in the toughest region in college rodeo,” Emmons said. “I am very excited about the team we are sending to Casper. Their chances are good. Anyone making it from the Southwest Region will have a good chance at being successful at the CNFR.”