Varilek, Wagoner Find Friendship, Success in Bronc Riding
When two Mitchell Tech bronc riders saddled up for their first college rodeo in 2021, they had no idea what memories they’d tuck under their hats.
Garrett Varilek and Forrest Wagoner both qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo, to be held June 11-17 in Casper, Wyo., after finishing out the spring rodeo season strong. Varilek is ranked first in the Great Plains Region and eighth in the nation, while Wagoner is third in the region.
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“The CNFR is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for college rodeo,” Mavericks head coach Jimmie Nicolaus said. “The CNFR in Casper, referred to as the ‘Rose Bowl of College Rodeo,’ is where everybody wants to be in June. It’s great to be sending our student-athletes to the CNFR again, and we look forward to being in Saturday night’s championship finals.”
It’s an arena neither expected to ride in, but Nicolaus said each has earned his ride.
“These guys have stepped into leadership positions that I’ve kind of thrust upon them,” he said. “Last year, (Varilek) won saddle bronc riding at the last rodeo of the season,” after competing just one year in high school rodeo. Varilek graduated in 2022 with a Powerline Construction and Maintenance degree, but “I think that was a big catalyst for him to return this year to prove that that finish wasn’t a fluke,” Nicolaus said.
“It was always a dream of mine since I was very little to ride broncs, but my parents never wanted me to do it,” Varilek said. “It was just in my blood. My grandfather rode bareback horses, and I always wanted to do it, so I finally just did, and I was in love right away. I came to MTC because I wanted to be a part of the rodeo team. I didn’t expect to get anything out of it. Three years ago, if you would have asked me where I’d be today, I would have never guessed it would be the CNFR to ride broncs.”
Similarly, Wagoner, who had never rodeoed competitively before coming to Mitchell Tech, found the confidence he needed in his first year, as a Powerline Construction and Maintenance student, after a chance encounter with Nicolaus.
“He noticed I was wearing a sweatshirt for a college rodeo team in California. He knows the coach out there, so he struck up a conversation and invited me to the first rodeo meeting last year,” Wagoner said. “I never looked back.”
Wagoner was able to build off some natural instincts, according to Nicolaus.
“He had all the tools,” he said, adding that he had toyed with the sport on ranches in high school. “We just kind of needed to get them organized in his toolbelt. It was rewarding to see him rise to the occasion and saying, ‘I can ride at this level.’”
When he wasn’t climbing power poles or riding, Wagoner ran and lifted weights to build up his strength and endurance for the sport, consistently improving his ride, rodeo after rodeo.
“It kept me away from some other dangerous things I could be doing. It gave me a place to put my mind toward something and work toward a truly challenging task. It also gave me time in the hotel to study for my tests and do my homework,” he said, adding that his roommate and fellow Maverick, Logan Miller, inspired him to keep his studies a priority. “It gave me a little break between school. Sometimes the powerline program would get really (intense) and I would get behind in my other schoolwork. Then, I’d go to a rodeo, and I would have time in the hotel to focus on schoolwork in the hotel.”
After that first year, Wagoner, originally from Melrose, Mont., and Varilek, of Rapid City, had forged a friendship as each pushed the other to be a better bronc rider.
“We hardly knew each other in Powerline, other than rodeo, but there we grew a great relationship and started hanging out a lot and then lived together,” Varilek said.
When he decided to come back to Mitchell for a second year of college, studying Electrical Utilities and Substation Technology, however, he insisted that Varilek join him, and encouraged him to strive to qualify for the CNFR.
“He talked me into it, but I am glad he did, or I wouldn’t be going to the CNFR, and my career path wouldn’t have turned out the same,” said Varilek, who graduated last month from the Progressive Welding program. Insisting that Wagoner set his sights higher, too, Varilek told his friend, “‘You better be coming, too.’”
“He said, ‘I’m not going (to the CNFR) if you’re not going,’ so I had to make it happen,” Wagoner said, “but it is pretty crazy, because I would have never expected to get here. I remember looking last year at all of the competition and seeing all of these faces I’d never seen before and would be competing against. Now, to be going and representing Mitchell Tech, I just can’t describe it. It all comes down to whittling away at goals. (Because of Varilek), the CNFR got into my vision of goals, and I just didn’t look away. I had to get there.”
In Casper, Wagoner and Varilek will reunite in their Mitchell Tech green vests for one last rodeo and a week of memories that they each will take home with them – but not to their own families.
“We’ve traded places,” Wagoner said with a chuckle. “When I got hired in Rapid City, I talked to him, and he suggested I live with his parents. Then, a guy I know who does pipe fence up in Melrose needed a welder, so I suggested he apply. Now, he’s living with my parents.”
Varilek called the arrangement “very interesting.”
“You get a better understanding of their life and a deeper look at why they are the person they are,” he said of living with his friend’s family. “I, 100 percent, feel like I’m a part of the family. … They’ve been nothing but great to me, but I wouldn’t have expected anything else, because he is a great person, too.”
Although they aren’t brothers, Varilek and Wagoner shared a brotherhood.
“Between me and Forrest, we just had the same mindset about what we wanted to do,” Varilek said. “We were always very competitive and pushed each other.”
But “the work isn’t done,” Wagoner said. “We haven’t finished the job, so I continue to put in the reps and get ready for the CNFR. There’s really stiff competition there, and I’m representing Mitchell Tech and South Dakota. This will be on TV. My grandparents will be watching, so I have to give it all I’ve got.”
Both Mavericks will compete Sunday and Monday evenings, with Varilek drawn to compete Tuesday evening and Wagoner on Thursday evening. The finals are Saturday. Starting Tuesday, the CNFR will air at 8 p.m. nightly on ESPN3.