By: Justin Felisko, PBR.com
PUEBLO, Colo. – All year, J.W. Harris has stepped up and challenged various World Champion Bull contenders with fierce confidence.
Until this weekend, Harris had gone 0-for-5 against Smooth Operator, Little Red Jacket and the late Mick E Mouse.
Harris finally broke through with a 90.25-point ride on SweetPro’s Long John in the Built Ford Tough Championship Round to cap his 3-for-4 event winning performance in Springfield, Missouri, this past weekend.
When Harris made Long John the eighth selection of the championship round draft, he did so knowing he was in need of a big score if he wanted to win the event title at the PFI Invitational.
Prior to stepping up to the shark cage, Harris only smirked when asked if he had something up his sleeve.
Quite frankly, there was a bigger thought crossing his mind inside JQH Arena.
The 2015 World Championship.
“I don’t think I am out of it until the fat lady sings,” Harris said after his ride aboard Long John. “I have to put together a streak and get hot. Maybe this will be the start of it.”
Harris said repeatedly this season that one ride can swing momentum in a rider’s favor, and his season-high 90.25-point ride – his first 90-plus ride since the 2014 World Finals – may just be it.
“Maybe that is something that played into (selecting him) too,” Harris said. “I know he fits my style and I figured, ‘Shoot, if I get him knocked out then I can feed off that.’”
Harris became the second consecutive rider to cover Long John for 90-plus points a week after J.B. Mauney rode him for 92.25 points to finish second in Thackerville, Oklahoma. Mauney’s championship-round win on Long John helped him leapfrog Joao Ricardo Vieira for the world lead.
Harris’ championship-round ride helped him leave Springfield with 560 total points toward the world standings and has put him on the outside of the title race by climbing from 12th in the world to sixth.
He trails Mauney by 1,690 points heading into this weekend’s Express Employment Professionals Invitational in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Mauney (knee/ankle injury) is listed as probable for Charlotte by Dr. Tandy Freeman and will be a huge crowd favorite in his home state.
The 2013 World Champion has been on an absolute tear since the BFTS resumed in August, and if not for injuries in Nashville, Tennessee, and Springfield, he may have an even larger lead atop the world standings.
Harris isn’t intimidated by Mauney’s surge of dominance.
In fact, it motivates the four-time PRCA champion to elevate his own game.
“No, whenever somebody else is on a run, it makes you want to do better,” Harris said. “I don’t wish anybody bad luck. I will be there rooting for him and it makes me want to ride better and get up there and get on a streak with him.”
Harris checked on Mauney, who was injured in the bucking chutes attempting to ride Pearl Harbor, in the sports medicine room following his ride on Long John.
The May, Texas, native will likely need to shed another 600-700 points off Mauney’s lead to increase his chances of potentially winning his first PBR World Championship.
There is still plenty of time for Harris – or another rider – to put together a run to try and catch the world leader with three BFTS events remaining, as well as a 15/15 Bucking Battle in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in two weeks.
Nine-time World Champion Ty Murray thinks Harris can get back into the world title race.
“I think so. He knows what it takes and he knows what it takes to ride rank bulls,” Murray said. “I think there definitely has been an adjustment for him coming up to this league. He is in a good position right now when you are looking at how beat up J.B. is and how bad Joao is riding.”
Travel buddies Nathan Schaper and Aaron Roy both noticed a change in Harris this weekend and agreed their roommate on the road could be a dangerous contender.
“Oh, absolutely,” Schaper replied when asked if Harris was in contention. “I think every one of us in the Top 10 are. It is all pretty close. There is a lot of bull riding left. It is going to be good. I couldn’t be happier for him. He looked like a complete different guy this week. I don’t know if his riding changed, but just his mental approach toward it. You could definitely see he was hungrier this weekend and wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Roy added, “Anybody can make a run in that Top 10 right now. It is just a matter if they get on a roll or not. J.W. definitely has the talent to do it and the drive to do it. He has everything to prove here that he can be a champion here the way he rides he can do it easily.”
Murray also cautioned that Harris did get bucked off Pile Driver in Round 3 in Springfield, something that can’t happen at the World Finals.
“He puts out the effort, but you are talking about a different level,” Murray said. “We watched him get handled tonight just as easy as a good ride that he made. When you make one mental mistake up here, these bulls make you pay for it immediately.”
Consistency is an area Harris will need to improve upon in the final weeks of the season.
He has the second lowest-riding percentage (34.92 percent) in the Top 10 of the world standings and he has earned no points toward the world standings in 10 of the 23 BFTS events this season.
He was 2-for-9 before Springfield and had only earned 145 points toward the world standings in the first four events of the BFTS stretch run.
“It pisses you off,” Harris said. “It has been a piss poor season on my behalf and I only have me to blame. It is time for me to take my head out of my rear end and get after it.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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