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Justin Miller rides "Flirtatious"

Justin Miller, shown here riding at the Chase Hawks Roughstock Invitational last December, finished second in bareback riding at the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Florida.

BILLINGS -- Justin Miller could have been sad.

He could have been really, really angry.

Instead, the Billings cowboy took a more positive approach to his 2017 season.

“It was a great year,” said Miller.

And Miller was right.

The 28-year-old bareback rider won a career-best $83,494 during his PRCA season. His previous best was 29th in 2014. And he finished a career-high 16th in the world standings.

And that brings the other side.

Miller missed his first National Finals Rodeo qualification by just $2,620. Only the top 15 in each event qualify for professional rodeo’s Super Bowl this December in Las Vegas.

“It was tough,” Miller admitted. “A lot of close friends called after the season. They were sad for me. It just didn’t work out.”

Miller will get started on his 2018 season Thursday night at the first performance of the PRCA NILE Rodeo at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

The rodeo has 7 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Thursday is also Cat-Griz night where the two college rodeo programs will compete for scholarship money. Also, the Tvetene Turf High School Rodeo Showcase will feature some of the top athletes from the Montana high school standings.

The annual NILE Rodeo is one of the first high-paying rodeos for the 2018 season.

“I’ve never done well at the NILE,” said Miller, a 2008 graduate of Billings Senior. “I don’t think it’s a curse … I just haven’t had much luck there.”

Miller was as high as sixth in the 2017 world bareback standings this past year. He used a strong start at the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals in January and another large check in San Antonio, Texas, to put himself in the top 10.

He also won bareback titles at Walla Walla, Washington, Santa Barbara, California and Othello, Washington. Miller is also third in the 2017 Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit standings.

“I took a more business-like approach this year,” Miller said. “I traveled by myself and just took care of things.”

His pursuit of a berth in the NFR stalled in early August when he re-tore the meniscus in his right knee in Missoula. He had surgery four days later and missed the lucrative Montana weekend that featured rodeos in Billings, Baker, Kalispell and Circle. A year ago, Miller pocketed $3,367 during the same stretch.

“That was a tough one, missing the hometown rodeo,” he said of not riding at the Yellowstone River Stampede in Billings.

He spent the next five weeks criss-crossing the country, trying to stay in the top 15.

That included a difficult trip of riding in Fargo, North Dakota one night and being in Montgomery, Alabama the next afternoon.

“I slept two hours at my gate at the airport,” Miller related. “And then flew to Montgomery. I made it by 45 minutes before the bareback riding started.”

Ironically, on the final day of the 2017 regular season, Miller found himself in the same performance in Pasadena, Texas with Mason Clements, the man he was chasing for the final qualifying spot. Miller placed second for $1,972. Clements, of Santaquin, Utah was third for $1,421 and a spot in the NFR.

“It was tough to watch,” Miller said of his slow descent in the world standings. “I was driving home at the end of the year and Evan Jayne called me and congratulated me on a good year. He finished 17th in the world standings.

“It made me realize we both had pretty good years and we’re pretty happy with it.”

Miller plans pretty much the same approach for 2018, with maybe a few changes.

“I learned a lot this past year about entering and traveling,” he said. “It proved I can make it (the NFR). I might go to some different rodeos next year. Maybe try to get into some different performances where they have the better horses.”

And he’s got plans after Thursday night.

“I’m going to do some mule deer and elk hunt,” Miller said. “I’ll go to Checkerboard the next day. Just a chance to get away and have some time for myself.”

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

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