BILLINGS — Competing in the Northern Rodeo Association this past summer represented so many different things for Hank Hollenbeck.

It was an opportunity to re-connect with his past as a young cowboy learning to throw a rope.

“It’s how I got my start,” Hollenbeck said.

And while seeing young children hang around the fences and scramble around the chutes, it was a chance to peek into his future.

“You see all those kids running around, I can’t wait for it to be my boy,” he said, referring to son Rhett, born this past May.

The Molt cowboy molded his past and future into a pretty solid rodeo present.

Competing at fewer than 10 rodeos, Hollenbeck heads into this weekend’s Northern Rodeo Association/Northern Women’s Rodeo Association Finals leading the tie-down roping standings and contending in the all-around cowboy race.

The three-performance rodeo begins Thursday at the Butte Civic Center. The rodeo features the top 10 qualifiers in each event and will determine the 2017 year-end champions.

With a potential $3,312 available to every competitor, almost every title race is wide open. Only bareback rider J2 Bridges of Dillon has clinched a championship. First place in each round pays $736, while winning the average is worth another $1,104.

“It was a good year, the horses worked really well,” said Hollenbeck.

Hollenbeck also has a dominating lead in the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit all-around standings for 2017. He filled in his busy schedule with NRA events when time allowed.

Hollenbeck won tie-down roping titles at Big Timber, Three Forks and Wibaux. He also won the steer wrestling at Harlowton during the Fourth of July run. During one hectic weekend in August, Hollenbeck competed in six rodeos around the state.

“With the little guy born this spring, I didn’t go quite as far as I used to,” said Hollenbeck, who with his wife Sara, works the family cattle and sheep operation outside of Molt. “I tried to rodeo closer to home."

And to his heart.

“The NRA, I wanted to be in that family circle again,” he continued. “That’s where I grew up, with my folks hauling us around to the junior events. I want the same for my son someday.

“Him being so little, he didn’t travel with me this summer. It will be nice having him with us in Butte.”

Hollenbeck closed his NRA regular season by earning $1,751 in tie-down roping and steer wrestling in Hamilton. The big checks lifted him to first in the tie-down roping standings and put him within striking distance of all-around standings leader Sam Levine of Wolf Creek.

Hollenbeck has a razor-thin lead of $170 over Chase Mitchell of Shepherd in the tightly-bunched tie-down roping standings. All 10 finalists are mathematically eligible for title.

He is also seventh in the steer wrestling standings, trailing leader Michael Gollaher of Cascade by $2,212.

Hollenbeck is $1,654 behind Levine in the all-around standings. Levine, who also leads the team roping heeling standings, is also qualified in tie-down roping.

“Got a chance at two titles,” said the 33-year-old Hollenbeck. “I’m definitely going for it. But it will be tough. It’s tough roping against all young guys now. There’s a lot of good ropers out there.”

Hollenbeck planned to get in a rare practice session on Wednesday before leaving for Butte with his family on Thursday.

“During the summer you don’t get much time to practice,” he said. “You practice hard in the spring … April, May and June … when the weather allows. You hit it hard then and hopefully, you and your horses are in shape for the summer.

“But if you’ve been around long enough, you know what needs to be done when you nod your head.”

Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

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