GILLETTE, Wyo. -- Paige Hadlock of Ogden. Garrison Cannon of St. George. Tyler Bingham of Honeyville.
The National High School Rodeo Association crowned winners in 12 events on Saturday night -- and three of them were from Utah. Hadlock combined three near-perfect scores to take the cutting horse title. Cannon dragged down his final quarry in just over eight seconds to jump from fourth to first place in tie-down roping.
And then, after watching cowboy after cowboy get bucked from a maddeningly tough line of eliminator bulls, Bingham strapped on for the final ride of the night and held on for eight heart-stopping seconds to take the buckle.
Some 1,500 athletes from 41 states, several Canadian provinces and Australia were represented at the National High School Finals Rodeo. Beehive State cowboys and cowgirls were second place finishers in a handful of other events and were among the top 20 competitors in every competition except breakaway roping. The Utah delegation was second in the team standings only to Texas -- and the Lone Star state chooses its young cowboys and cowgirls from a population that is nearly 10 times larger than Utah.
"Everyone else comes here to make the finals," an adrenaline-soaked Bingham said after a bull-riding session in which every rider except for himself and fellow Utahn Joe Frost got bucked. "Utah comes here to win it."
Another explanation: Experience.
Utah is host to more than 30 high school rodeos each year, including the marathon "Dixie 6" -- a half-dozen rodeos over three consecutive weekends each fall in southern Utah.
"Almost every city has a high school rodeo club," said Hadlock's father, Lawson.
That puts a lot of points in the pot -- and Utah teens who want to compete for the country's most coveted prize have to compete in a lot of shows to ensure a trip to nationals, he said.
"We have to go hard all year round," Paige Hadlock said moments after securing her first national title -- capping a senior year in which she also won the state cutting championship and in which her twin brother, Dax, took the boy's state title and fell just half a point off a national championship.
Utah's strong emphasis on family may play a role as well: Put away your notions of the lonesome cowboy -- at the high school level, rodeo is a family affair.
"There's a commitment required that requires a family investment that is so much greater than any other sport," said Alan Anderson, father of steer wrestling finalist Colton Mooney.
It's just that commitment that is going to make the next few weeks difficult for the Hadlock family. After 18 years together -- and too many rodeos to count, Paige and Dax will part ways this fall. Paige will attend school at Weber State; Dax is headed to Colorado State.
"It's going to be tough -- I'm going to miss her," Dax Hadlock said. "I'm going to miss picking on her."
Of course, he noted with equal parts chagrin and pride, his sister is the one with the state title.
"We are competitive," he said. "But I always cheer for her."
That kind of support isn't limited to the small number of sibling sets among the Utah delegation, Anderson noted. "It's everyone here," he said before the start of the championship short round as he took his seat among other Beehive staters in the south grandstands. "You listen -- Utahns will cheer louder for one another that anyone else here."
And they did.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.