WALLA WALLA - In his seven previous seasons as rodeo coach at Walla Walla Community College, Buster Barton's men's team has wrangled six trips to the College National Finals and finished in the top 10 nationally each and every time.
The high-water mark, of course, was in 2008 when the Walla Wallans won the national championship. That team was led by bareback rider Steven Peebles, who has since qualified twice for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals and is currently ranked 26th in the PRCA bareback standings with 2012 earnings just south of $10,000.
WWCC recently captured its seventh Northwest Region title in Barton's eight-year tenure and will depart Walla Walla Wednesday en route to Casper, Wyo., with a full six-man varsity squad.
Regional championship teams qualify for nationals as well as other individuals who finish in the top three regionally in their respective events over the course of the season. The Walla Walla women's team placed third in the region behind Blue Mountain and Treasure Valley and has qualified two cowgirls for the week-long national rodeo.
The WWCC women haven't qualified for nationals as a team since 2009. Walla Walla won its only women's national championship in 1993.
Walla Walla's men's team placed ninth in the nation last year, and three of this year's nationals-bound cowboys made the trip to Casper in 2011 as well. And although none of the three placed, Barton likes the makeup of this year's nationals team.
"This team I'm taking back there hasn't done a lot at the college finals before, but it is still one of the most seasoned teams I've had," Barton said. "They have all rodeoed a lot, and they won't let the pressure of the bright lights and the big stage get to them. I'm excited for them."
Bo Segerman, a 2010 Touchet High School graduate, made the trip to Casper last year as a saddle bronc rider. He's entered in the bronc riding again this year, and he will also team rope with sophomore Mason Chambers of Goldendale, who will be making his first appearance at nationals.
Segerman won the regional all-around championship by placing second on saddle broncs and second in team roping. Chambers finished 11th in the region in tie-down roping and is entered in that event as well at nationals.
"Bo and Mason are a very seasoned team," Barton said of the team-roping duo. "And Bo has improved tremendously as a bronc rider. If he can draw the right animals, he could have a great week."
Segerman, as it turns out, will be Walla Walla's only rough-stock contestant in Wyoming.
"We've got one bronc rider, and the rest are team ropers and tie-down ropers," Barton said. "I think Walla Walla has always been a timed-events school, although we have had some great rough-stock riders go through the program as well. But our practices really lean toward the timed-event guys."
Bryce Palmer, another Touchet High product, class of 2008, was the region's reserve all-around champion and will be making his first trip to nationals. Palmer was second in the region in calf roping, and he and team-roping partner Jake Minor won the regional championship.
Minor is from Ellensburg. He competed at nationals a year ago with team-roping partner Rob Webb, who is no longer on the team.
"This is the first year for Bryce and Jake together, but they should go back there and do some big things," Barton said. "Those two could bring home a championship if they have a good week back there.
"Bryce is a great header. And Jake's cousins, Riley and Brad Minor, have made the (PRCA) national finals. Just mention Minor in the team-roping world and that's a big name.
Barton also likes Palmer's chances in the tie-down roping.
"He's riding a very nice horse," Barton said. "If Bryce ties down four, he could really do something. Any one of these kids could be a legitimate national champion this year."
Rounding out the men's team are sophomore calf ropers Mitch Dove and Ross O'Sullivan. Dove, who is from Centerville, Wash., finished fifth in the regional standings and is making his first trip to the CNFR. O'Sullivan, from Burns, Ore., finished sixth and was a member of last year's WWCC nationals team.
Walla Walla's men's team ranked fifth in the nation during the regular season behind New Mexico State, Mesalands Community College of Tucumcari, N.M., Missouri Valley College and Utah Valley University. But rankings mean even less in rodeo than they do in most other sports, Barton emphasized.
"Rodeo is so much different from basketball or football," he said. "Any time you are dealing with animals, the variables are so much greater.
"But we darn sure have the talent to have another national championship team if we draw the right stock back there. If we do, I have huge expectations for the men's team."
The two Walla Walla women who will accompany the men's team to nationals are sophomores Brittany Leasy of Middleton, Idaho, and Rachel Richards of La Grande. Both will be making their first trip to nationals.
Leasy notched a second-place finish in the region's breakaway roping event this season. Richards finished third in goat tying.
"Brittany is a great all-around hand and a fierce competitor," Barton said of Leasy. "If she gets on a roll, she can hang with the best of them.
"And Rachel is by far the most consistent goat tier I have ever coached, and goat tying on the national level is in my eyes the toughest event at the college finals. But if she has a good week, she will be right there to make it to the short go."
The College National Finals consists of three full rounds in each event, with the top 12 in the average advancing to the finals. The rodeo begins Sunday and runs through the following Saturday.