MSU Spring Rodeo (copy)

Montana State’s Samantha Kerns competes in goat tying during the MSU Spring Rodeo on April 11 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

Right from the start, Samantha Kerns fully realized what she was capable of.

She flourished in pro and amateur rodeos the summer before starting college. After hanging with the various circuits’ “top dogs,” all she wanted to do was continue her streak.

In her first college rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, the Montana State freshman “kind of just dominated” by winning two events, placing in two others and winning the women’s all-around title.

“It was insane,” Kerns said. “To come in and do that well in my freshman year was pretty awesome. I think good coaches and good teammates and a good support system were a big part of that.”

Nine months later, Kerns is a key piece on the MSU women’s team heading to the College National Finals Rodeo which begins Sunday in Casper, Wyoming. Five women and 10 men from MSU qualified, which makes the Bobcats’ 15 total the largest contingent of any school represented, head coach Andy Bolich said.

After the early confidence boost helped Kerns realize what she could achieve, she won the Big Sky Region’s season-long women’s all-around title. She finished first in the region in breakaway and second in goat tying and will compete in both in Casper.

“We have strong girls in every single event,” Kerns said. “It’s not like we’re stacked in one event. We have good goat tyers going, we have a good barrel racer going, we have good breakaway ropers going. We have a really good chance I think.”

While growing up in Haines, Oregon, only Kerns’ mother was usually around when she practiced. Kerns often struggled to figure out if she was ever doing something wrong. But when she arrived at MSU, Kerns leaned on her teammates and coaches to examine and correct her techniques.

Throughout the fall and spring, Kerns battled with senior Celie Salmond for the top spot in the region’s all-around standings. Salmond has been a stalwart for the Bobcats for several years, and the two pushed each other to raise their level.

Salmond taught Kerns to remain focused and not let one poor run affect other events, a lesson that’s helped key Kerns’ well-rounded showings.

Kerns won the region with 1,909.33 points while Salmond, who will also compete at the CNFR, recorded 1,818.33. No one else finished with more than 1,190.

“To see Sam compete with her every week, that really showed how good she really was because we all know how good Celie is,” Bolich said. “That was a tight race and really showed the depth there between the two.”

When Kerns began her college search as a senior in high school, she spoke to childhood friend Allie Brown, then a senior on the Bobcats. Brown shared how much she enjoyed MSU, and when Kerns visited the school, she made up her mind.

Kerns sent videos of her in rodeos to Bolich, and Brown told the coach she’d be a worthwhile recruit.

“Andy told me what he could offer me, and I pretty much said yes right there,” Kerns said. “I didn’t go tour any other schools or anything. I just pretty much said that’s where I want to go. That’s where I’m going. It’s done.”

A successful summer and a school year later, Kerns enters the grandest stage of the season.

Two months ago, she won the women’s all-around at the soldout MSU Spring Rodeo in an environment often considered the most similar to the one the Bobcats will face in Casper. The accomplishment came amid a season full of them.

“She roped good, she scored good, she stayed consistent. She just did the things that she knows how to do really well,” Bolich said. “Sometimes freshmen come in and get a little bit rattled by the upperclassmen and the more kids and the different places they’ve never been, and none of that stuff really bothered Sam.”

To prepare for the CNFR, Kerns has entered several breakaway jackpots. Though goat tying jackpots are less common, she said, she’s adjusted her practice to model the Casper Events Center’s smaller space between the starting line and where the goats stand.

As Kerns has spent ample time in recent weeks traveling, she’s reflected on her first college season and the reputation she’s already building.

“It’s pretty exciting with her being a freshman and knowing we got her for three more years,” Bolich said. “The future is bright for her.”

Paul Schwedelson can be reached at pschwedelson@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.

Paul Schwedelson is a sports writer for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.