Many of the talented cowboys and cowgirls at the 2018 State High School Rodeo Finals in Heber City this week have grown up around the sport. They often have family who have competed in rodeo or have competed since they were old enough to swing a rope.

American Fork junior Jack Christensen, however, charted a different course.

Until a couple of years ago, he was locked in on baseball and wrestling — but things changed.

“I started working for my uncle at Dry Creek Ranch in Alpine about two years ago,” Christensen said Saturday. “I started learning how to do cow cutting, then he put me on a horse and he said let’s get out there and try it. He — and my parents — are the ones who got me here today.”

He said he dropped everything else to focus on his rodeo efforts.

“I wanted out of the politics of baseball, so I looked for a job,” Christensen said. “I started working right after school and full time in the summer. I learned how to ride and then I fell in love with it.”

The rise of the Lehi Longhorn cowboy from cutting novice to star reached its zenith this week as he surged past the rest of the talented boys cutting field to win his first state title on Wednesday. He received his prize — a brand new saddle — at the award ceremony Saturday night.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Christensen said. “I’ve learned a lot these past couple of years, riding every day and being around it. You always pick up little things you can do to get better.”

He recalled how it took time to figure out how everything came together to be successful in cutting.

“It started clicking last year before high school started,” Christensen said. “We really started getting some good scores. I learned to rely on myself a lot. Once I started clicking with my horse and my uncle was there, everything started getting better and better.”

He also had to deal with being a bit of an outsider early in his career.

“It was hard at first,” Christensen said. “I met Summer Amos at a cutting show and we clicked right off the bat, so when I showed up to rodeos she was there and I just hung out with her. Then once the year started going on, I made some pretty good friends.”

As he improved, he started seeing more and more success.

“You have to ride your horse a lot,” Christensen said. “You can’t just show up on some random horse and win it — or if you do, it is all luck. You have to really connect with your horse.”

He knew, however, that things would be tough at state. He had to go against Lehi teammate Dawson Zaharias, who had dominated the sport for much of the year, as well as a host of other top cowboys.

“I met Dawson at the ranch at the beginning of last year,” Christensen said. “We’ve gotten to know each other since then. We’ve become good friends. There was big competition. Those guys were kicking my butt at the beginning of the year but once it started clicking, I started getting up there and giving them something to compete against.”

But he just kept riding his horse Smart Jiminy Cricket (known as Jimmer) through each round until he discovered that he had emerged as the top point-scorer and secured the title.

“Right after the Heber rodeo, my uncle and I just started pounding the fundamentals in my head and in my horse’s head,” Christensen said. “We were making sure we were in position. We felt if we could get three clean runs, we would be right there. I would say that’s what won it for me. I knew it was going to be really close.”

Now he’s thrilled to be headed to the National High School Rodeo competition in July.

“We just wanted to be in position to go to nationals because this is my first year of high school rodeo,” Christensen said. “We didn’t expect to win it. Everything else is icing on the cake.”

Two other local cowgirls also secured state titles as Payson junior Amanda Butler of the South Utah County rodeo club won the barrel racing and American Leadership Academy junior Autumn Snyder of the Juab rodeo club won the pole bending.

Full results from the 2018 State High School Rodeo Finals can be found at UHSRA.org.

Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or jlloyd@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.

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