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About as early as such matters come to mind, Rapid City bareback rider Shane O’Connell, knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to be every year come December.

“No doubt. I guess I’ve wanted to make it to the National Finals Rodeo since I first knew about it when I was 5 or 6 years-old,” said the Rapid City Central grad on Tuesday while on the road to Las Vegas. “And now here I am, 22 years-old and finally getting my chance to go to Vegas with the big boys and ride for the gold buckle and the big money.”

A chance indeed as O’Connell will be a part of an elite field of 120 of rodeo’s top athletes competing for 10 million dollars in prize money when the 2018 edition of the NFR, the “World Series” of rodeo, kicks off a 10-day run on Thursday night at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

A third year on the PRCA professional rodeo proved to be charm for the former Cobbler, though not without a few bumps, bruises, and necessary attitude adjustments along the way.

“It’s been long road for sure,” O’Connell said. “I’ve put in three hard, hard years to get where I’m at, and it took me about 300 head of the best bucking horses there is to get make the NFR. It took a lot of trying to get to this point. I’m not sure I was home more than a couple of days at a time this summer, and there were a couple of times when it got tough, that maybe I should have went home, but I hung in there and stuck it out. I’ve been waiting to make this drive to Vegas as an NFR competitor for a long time, so finally getting behind the wheel and doing it was special for sure.”

Holding down the 13th spot among the 15 bareback qualifiers, O’Connell is well aware that he will need to bring something special to the Thomas and Mack arena every night to have a shot at the $26,231 first-place payout available in each round.

“I have a long ways to go, that’s for sure. I’m a rookie stepping in with a pen full of veterans down here, so I’m going to have to have a little extra in my britches to make this happen,” O’Connell said while describing a talented 2018 field that includes two-time world champion and traveling partner Tim O’Connell (no relation). “And yeah, the thought of it has made it a little bit harder to sleep at night, and sometimes I get the chills thinking about it. I imagine it will get a little hectic down here, going with a little sleep and having to think on a dime, but I’m ready and can’t say I’m scared of it.”

A couple of South Dakota ladies complete the list of South Dakota qualifiers for the 2018 NFR as veteran Lisa Lockhart (Oelrichs) and Buffalo native, Jessica Routier, will be among the 15 barrel racers circling the cans at the Thomas and Mack.

And while Lockhart, a two-time reserve world champion, will be making her 12th consecutive appearance at the NFR, Routier, like O’Connell, will be making her initial NFR appearance, a fitting end to a 2018 campaign that has far exceeded her expectations.

A Women’s Professional Rodeo Association competitor since 2010, and a moderately successful one at that, Routier has a very busy lifestyle — a little more than most perhaps as Routier and husband Riley have five children. With a lengthy list of daily “to-do’s” on her schedule, Routier came into the year with a goal of earning a spot among the top 30 in WPRA world standings.

A solid performance at the Badlands Circuit Finals in October of 2018 coupled with an even better effort at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Kissimmee, Florida, in April, led to a significant upgrade in year-end possibilities.

“With the circuit finals money counting and the RNCFR counting, that gave us an opportunity for Calgary, and that money counted, and it all worked out,” said Routier in a Rodeo News magazine interview. “I decided I might as well keep going fairly hard, and she’s (7 year-old mare, Missy) run great. It’s been a learning year, and I haven’t been out of the circuit a lot before this. But for the most part, everything has gone really well and it’s been an amazing year.”

Routier, currently eighth in world standings, will have her shot at padding the Christmas budget significantly with some good runs and a share of the 1.1 million dollars up for grabs in each event this year.

The exploits of South Dakota’s three competitors at the 2018 National Finals Rodeo can be followed each night (8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 15) on the CBS Sports Network.

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