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New Mexico State University
College of Engineering

News Release

Border collies battle it out to be NMSU football's Smoki II

By S. Derrickson Moore/dmoore@lcsun-news.com
Posted:   08/18/2012 02:50:28 PM MDT

StrikingBarbara Couture, president of New Mexico State University, congratulates Striking, a 4-year-old border collie, and his owner Steve Stochaj after Striking was officially named the winner of the Smoki II tryouts for NMSU home football games, where his job is to retrieve the tee after kickoffs. (Shari V. Hill/Sun-News)

Barbara Couture, president of New Mexico State University, congratulates Striking, a 4-year-old border collie, and his owner Steve Stochaj after Striking was officially named the winner of the Smoki II tryouts for NMSU home football games, where his job is to retrieve the tee after kickoffs. (Shari V. Hill/Sun-News)

LAS CRUCES — It was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that gridiron hopefuls dream about.

The Aggie Stadium turf was slick from a rare, high desert early morning rain, as contender after contender made their runs for the glory.

After the fur flew, and the champs showed what they were made of, it was down to just two potential champs — and knuckle-biting qualifying runs.

And in the end, New Mexico State University had a new Smoki II. The heir to the throne — and football tee retrieval duties —is Striking, Steve Stochaj's border collie.

The new NMSU canine champ was chosen Saturday from an enthusiastic field of nine tail-wagging contenders.

It was a squeaker. Striking, 4, narrowly edged out fellow finalist Murphy, 7, another black-and-white border collie, a rescue dog belonging to Karen Kendall of Las Cruces.

A panel of celebrity judges took about two hours to chose a worthy successor to Smoki the Wonder Dog, who was born in Capitan in 1989 and was trained by Joel Sims of Hatch, an NMSU alum and former stunt man.

The original Smoki delighted and cheered Aggie crowds, even in defeat, for six years before retiring in 2002. Smoki, a border collie-Australian shepherd mix, died at age 15 in 2005, after a career that included a star turn as town dog in "Wyatt Earp," co-starring with Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid.

So canine contenders had some impressive paw prints to fill when they signed up for a tryout that required three successful attempts at retrieving an item from the midpoint of the 35-yard-line: an item brought by the handler, and two retrievals of a kicking tee. Judges were also looking for "pleasant and friendly disposition, appearance and agility."

First up was Zoe, Sharna Horn's ebulliant black Labrador mix, who did some impressive warm-up rolls on the stadium turf.

"Her second birthday was July 14, so she's young yet. I didn't really think she'd win, but I thought it would be a fun day," Horn said.

Proving the gig was no cinch, Zoe headed for center field, sniffed and mouthed the tee, and then, oblivious of the qualifying tasks, seemed inclined to go for a victory lap anyway. She finished an end run with indications that she might be able to read, as she squatted happily near a "GO AGGIES" sign. After the pooper scooper detail cleared the field, it was back to the qualifying runs.

Competitors included heelers, a Weimaraner, a golden Labrador and a couple of shepherds: Jake, Shaun Cooper's Australian shepherd, and Debbie Kandoll's Dutch Shepherd Luke, an MWD (Military Working Dog) with a heroic backstory.

Luke M560, U.S. Army (retired), was born in Germany and did a tour in Iraq. He made a valiant attempt at tee retrieval, after dutifully checking out the field parameters, including sniffing a suspicious-looking camera bag.

Luke had worn down some crucial teeth on kennel bars during his military service, Kandoll explained, making it difficult for the dog to secure and fetch the tee without some fumbles.

Though all the contenders showed style, and a few managed to complete their assigned tasks, the black-and-white border collies had what the judges wanted.

"I'm looking for compatibility, precision, and a dog having a good time," said Jared Strommen, a judge and also Aggie Pride Band drum major, who'll be sharing the field with the winner.

Another judge, NMSU President Barbara Couture, had a chance to check out canine star qualities as each dog and owner got pins, certificates and doggy goodie bags before posing for photos with the prez.

Smoki II (A.K.A. Striker) is scheduled to make his first appearance at the Aggie home opener against Sacramento State on Aug. 30. If, for any reason, Striker is unable to fulfill his doggie duties, judges said, runner-up Murphy will be drafted to carry on the Smoki tradition.

Sims, as trainer of the original Wonder Dog, felt a special obligation to pick out a worthy successor, and visited closely with contenders and conferred with his mom Phyllis Sims of Hatch.

"I'm the original Smoki's grandmother, and I hope they'll let the new dog use his own name, so the dog will know they're talking to him," she advised.

Joel Sims predicted the winner before the final ballots were tabulated. He seemed happy with the choice.

So did Striking's owner Stochaj, a New Jersey native who has lived in Las Cruces since 1990.

"I got Striking when I was at a summer camp to learn agility training," said Stochaj.

Striking was just a promising puppy then, and has since gone on to fulfill his potential with honors that include Agility Champion from the North American Dog Agility Council.

In addition to swimming and diving from the side of the pool, Striking enjoys hanging out with Stochaj's two other resident dogs, a border collie-Portuguese water dog mix and a border collie-beagle mix.

Going into the finals, Stochaj thought Striking's chances were good.

"You never know, but he's a pretty steady dog, so I thought it would go pretty well. Though it could be different when there are people and players and the roar of the crowd. I hope everything goes OK," said Stochaj.

With the victory comes glory and a free sideline season pass for Stochaj. And for Striking?

"He's pretty happy. He just likes getting out there," Stochaj said.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

And the new NMSU Wonder Dog is ...

Striking

Age: 4

Breed: Border collie

Owner: Steve Stochaj

First appearance: Aug. 30, NMSU vs. Sacramento State

August 2012