CHEYENNE – Brody Cress’ first trip to the National Finals Rodeo was eye-opening.

Rust that accumulated from having his right ankle surgically repaired made the Hillsdale saddle bronc rider’s second NFR berth disappointing.

Experienced and healthy, Cress is ready to make the most of his third NFR trip.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s year-end event starts today in Las Vegas. The 10th and final round is Dec. 14.

“The more you go out there, you’re going to be more prepared than the previous year,” Cress said. “We’ve done a great job of setting up my schedule this year. I’m so thankful to have the help of my mom getting my schedule set up with all my sponsor signings and going on Flint Rasmussen’s show and things like that.

“We’ve got all those set up to where I don’t have any signings before 12. I’ll have the morning to wake up, get food in me and work out before I go to those signings. Those will be over in time for me to get to the arena and get prepared.”

At his first NFR, Cress tried to accommodate as many appearance requests as he could, and felt stretched thin. Despite the hectic schedule, he placed in seven of 10 rounds and won the aggregate title to finish second in the world standings.

Last year, the 23-year-old had to have multiple surgeries to repair the right ankle he shattered at the end of a rough dismount in early August. He wasn’t able to get on any practice horses until the week before the NFR. He estimated he was only 70% healthy when he arrived in Las Vegas, and finished 12th in the world standings.

Health and rust aren’t going to be issues this year.

Cress enrolled in graduate school at Tarelton State University in Stephenville, Texas, which allowed him to return to the college rodeo arena. The 2014 Cheyenne East graduate won three of five Southwest Region rodeos and placed fourth at another this fall. He sits second in the regional standings.

“I wanted to pursue winning the national title at the collegiate level because I’ve never been able to achieve that,” said Cress, who qualified for the college finals three times. “We’ve got an outstanding team this year. It’s been really exciting to compete with everybody and get to hang out at college rodeos and stuff, and get my degree paid for.”

Cress knows being a three-time NFR qualifier while competing at college rodeos is unique, but he doesn’t approach those events any differently.

“It’s a lot harder to go to college rodeos and get as excited as when you’re riding in big arenas like Cheyenne Frontier Days, Houston, San Antonio and the NFR,” Cress said. “But it has really helped me exercise my mind and make sure I’m getting in the right mindset and treating every ride the exact same as if I was riding at the NFR.

“I’m slowing down and really focusing on the little things. Competing in college rodeos has really helped me prepare for the NFR this year.”

Cress was still getting used to riding on his surgically repaired ankle when CFD rolled around in late July, and was 29th in the PRCA standings. He took advantage of his hometown rodeo’s new tournament format and became the first saddle bronc rider to win three consecutive titles at the “Daddy of ’em All.”

That victory catapulted him up the standings, and got him within spitting distance of the top 15. A handful more wins, combined with steady paychecks, helped him finish the regular season ninth with nearly $106,000 in earnings.

“I know a lot of people don’t like that (tournament) format, but I thought it was pretty exciting,” Cress said. “It takes off a lot of pressure because I wasn’t worried about, ‘OK, I was this score in the first round, so I need to be this much to make it into the finals. Then I have to be this many points in the short round to win it overall.’

“I went in there with the attitude of, ‘Well, I’m going to ride my absolute best or get bucked off trying.’ I was just focused on that the whole time. That obviously helped give me a confidence boost throughout the rest of the season.”

Cress is almost $119,000 behind world leader Ryder Wright of Milford, Utah. The sizeable checks available during each NFR round mean Wright’s lead isn’t insurmountable.

Cress isn’t worried about the standings as he prepares for his third NFR. He wants to focus on executing. If he does that, he said, the rest will take care of itself.

“You’ve got to keep everything consistent so it’s natural, and you can handle yourself in a situation where there are more nerves,” he said. “I still want to click through everything and get done with my process where when I crawl down in the bucking chute and nod my head every night out that I’m going to set myself up to have as much success as I can.”

Jeremiah Johnke is the WyoSports editor. He can be reached at jjohnke@wyosports.net or 307-633-3137. Follow him on Twitter at @jjohnke.

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