Cody Santel practices fishing at Lake Springfield before the weekly Thursday night tournament begins. Photos by Chris Young.
Bass fishing gaining stature as college sport; scholarships on the horizon for top student-anglers
The State Journal-Register
When Tim Santel’s son Cody started looking at colleges, it never occurred to him that bass fishing might be in his son’s future.
“During a college visit, Cody asked about the school’s bass team just in case he didn’t end up playing baseball,” Santel says. “And I thought, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Santel is resident agent in charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Springfield.
“Even in my position, I had never even heard of a bass team.”
This fall, Cody will be a sophomore at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., home of what is considered to be one of the top fishing schools in the country.
“I was planning on playing baseball at either Murray or (University of Wisconsin) Stevens Point,” Cody says. “But I decided I wanted to fish.
“I really liked the competitiveness, so I moved from baseball to fishing.”
At most schools, bass fishing still is a club sport, although students can receive assistance with travel expenses and tournament fees.
Murray State anglers have a scholarship fund that is replenished by fundraising tournaments, and qualifying students can apply for those dollars, Cody says.
Andrew Henton, who is fishing for a club team at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said anglers help raise money to pay for the club’s expenses.
Andrew Henton changes lures while fishing on Lake Springfield. He fishes for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville bass fishing club.
“We don’t have any scholarship programs,” he says. “The money we raise goes toward paying for guys to go fish (tournaments) so they don’t have any added cost.”
Tournament fees, hotels and fuel are expenses that would be covered.
At some tournament series, anglers can win prize money that goes back to the school or club to help pay for equipment and travel.
At the highest levels of national competition, a new bass boat could be on the line.
Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., treats bass fishing the same as any intercollegiate sport, offering scholarships and requiring student-athletes to meet academic standards.
Bethel was the first school in the country to offer scholarships. The 2012-13 academic year will be the fourth year scholarships will be available, says head coach Gary Mason.
“As far as I know, we’re the only one,” Mason says. “I’ve heard rumors of other colleges trying to follow in our footsteps. I hope they do.”
To be on the Bethel bass fishing team, student-athletes must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and carry a full load of 12 credit hours.
“We try to get the best of the best,” Mason said. “Fortunately we’ve been able to recruit a lot of great young fishermen.”
Attitude, academics and experience are the three key ingredients Mason wants to see in potential college anglers.
“It doesn’t do me any good to recruit a great fisherman who drops out of school after the first year because he can’t make the grade,” he says.
Students have to be prepared to do more than fish.
“I can teach a student a little bit about fishing,” Mason says. “But I can’t teach them the study habits and morals connected with going to school.”
Scholarship levels are based on several factors, including the student’s financial needs, and can range from $5,000 on up.
Getting ’em hooked
Athens Community High School science teacher and bass fishing coach Kerry Trueblood is looking at bass fishing as a path to college for his son, Clayton.
Clayton, 14, recently competed in The Bass Federation National Guard Junior World Championship in Georgia.
“Like I’m telling my son, Bethel’s coach says, ‘Hey, there are a lot of people that have a resume for bass fishing, but we are only taking the top students,’” Trueblood says. “Hundreds of applicants can fish, but they are not just after the best fisherman. They are looking for someone who can fish and represent the school and the sports program in the future.
“That’s an incentive for my son to get good grades.”
Illinois has the distinction of being the first state to offer bass fishing as a sanctioned high school activity. The program is four years old.
Kurt Gibson, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, says the possibilities for Illinois anglers advancing to college in fishing is exciting.
“Who knows where it will be in three, four or five years?” he says. “I would hope that over time the exposure the students in our schools are getting in our bass program will help them move on to college or professional tournaments.”
Bethel University’s Mason says other states will follow Illinois’ model.
“Kentucky and Tennessee are not far behind,” he says. “Alabama has a high school program. It is not sanctioned (by the state’s high school activities governing body), but it is a high school program we’ve recruited from extensively.”
Before heading back to Murray State and SIUE, respectively, Cody Santel and Henton are putting their expertise to work at Gander Mountain in Springfield this summer.
Santel says that’s a plus when dealing with customers and helping find the right equipment.
“We have personal experience using (the equipment) so we can recommend it and have some (credibility) behind it,” he says.
Both Santel and Henton are pursuing criminal justice majors.
“I’m going to be a police officer or I’m going to fish,” Santel says. “One of the two.”
Mason says bass fishing is another way for students who did not excel at traditional sports to earn their way.
“Non-traditional programs (like bass fishing, archery and shooting sports) are allowing kids who would not get a scholarship in their sport of choice a chance to get a scholarship and compete in sports they love besides the ones they played in high school,” Mason says.
And those kids will be the next generation of conservation police officers, biologists or other professions in the outdoors industry.
“As soon as they get through here (at Bethel), most of them will go right into the workforce,” Mason says. “Some of them may work in conservation or may go on to compete in pro bass fishing.
“All of them will carry bass fishing with them throughout the rest of their lives.”
Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.