Recent Nebraska high school graduates try their hand at pro rodeo in North Platte

Ruth Nicolaus
for The Fence Post
Gauge McBride, Kearney, competes at the 2019 Nebraska State High School Finals Rodeo. The 2018 state high school bareback riding champion will compete in North Platte at the Buffalo Bill Rodeo on Aug. 8.
Photo by Jill Saults

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — It’s not always seamless in making the transition from high school sports to college, and to the pros, but several cowboys from central and western Nebraska are giving it their best shot.

Gauge McBride, a 2020 Kearney High School graduate, Gus Franzen, a 2019 Kearney grad, and Mason Ward, a 2019 McPherson County High School grad, will compete at the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte Aug. 5-8.

All three men are in or headed to college on rodeo scholarships. McBride will be a student at Panola College in Carthage, Texas. Franzen and Ward finished their first years, both at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.

All three men also exceled in high school rodeo. McBride, a bareback rider, saddle bronc rider, and bull rider, won the state bareback riding title three out of four years. In the pros, he’s focusing on bareback riding, his strength. Franzen, a steer wrestler, was the 2019 state champ, and Ward was a three-time state high school champion bull rider, finishing the 2018 year 17th in the nation at the high school level.

Rodeo athletes can compete professionally as soon as they turn 18, and often compete collegiately as well as at the pros at the same time.

But a solid career in high school does not guarantee an easy professional career. The competition is much steeper, the three agree. “The talent gets a little steeper at the pro rodeos,” Franzen said. Last year, he competed at three pro rodeos and this year, he’s been to a few in Georgia and Florida before COVID-19 suspended rodeo competition.

Ward agreed. “It’s for sure a big jump,” to pro rodeos. “It’d be like a high school pitcher pitching in the major leagues. There’s a select few that it happens to.” Ward is going to PBRs as well as PRCA rodeos and is pleased with his performance so far. Even though he’s bucked off the last three bulls at PBRs, he’s held on for seven and a half seconds. It’s not a qualified ride, earning him a score, but it’s a positive note. “I didn’t ride them to eight seconds, but I rode some of the best bulls in the world to seven seconds, and heck, what’s one more second?”

Mentors have helped the men as they get started in their pro careers.

Franzen has gotten advice and help from a former Husker cowboy, Sean Mulligan, a steer wrestler who qualified for pro rodeo’s world championship, the National Finals Rodeo, four times. Mulligan lives close to Durant, and has had Franzen, as well as other Durant students, including Tyler Ravenscroft, another Nebraska college steer wrestler, practice at his arena. “He has a pretty good idea of what it takes to make it at the next level,” Franzen said. “To have somebody like that in your back yard is pretty good. He’s put us under his wing and has taken care of us.”

McBride gets guidance from Steven Dent, a 10-time NFR qualifier from Mullen. The McBride and Dent families have been friends for years, and McBride has spent plenty of time with Dent, on his ranch, practicing on his spur board (an instrument used to help cowboys practice their spur strokes), and with a machine that simulates a bucking horse. Dent, a three-time reserve world champion, “has helped me so much, with everything I need to do, not only how to ride, but how to take care of (rodeo) business,” McBride said. “I don’t think I would be doing this without him. Steven is one of the greatest bareback riders there is, and to have someone not only to tell me what I’m doing wrong, but what I’m doing right is great.”

McBride hasn’t competed at any pro rodeos yet; Deadwood, S.D., July 22-25 will be his first, and the North Platte event will be his second. He loves everything there is about riding bucking horses. “Just the feeling it gives you, the adrenaline rush, the feeling when you make a great ride and step off (the horse.) There’s nothing else like it.”

One of the best parts, the cowboys agree, is competing alongside world-class cowboys in their discipline. Some of the reigning world champions, plus multiple-time NFR qualifiers will be in North Platte. It could be unnerving, but the men don’t let it get to them. “It can be intimidating, but you know you’re on the right track when your idols become your competition,” Ward said.

McBride is working towards an associate degree in welding at Panola, Franzen is a finance major, and Ward is studying business management.

McBride will compete on Aug. 8; Franzen is up on Thursday, Aug. 6, and Ward will ride on Aug. 5.

This year’s Buffalo Bill Rodeo is Aug. 5-8 at the Wild West Arena in North Platte. All tickets are general admission to allow for social distancing, and the performances start at 8 p.m. each night. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ❖