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Fairmont fishing club expands world of high school sports

July 12, 2018

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) — When it comes to high school sports, East Fairmont’s Lane Flint is most widely recognized for grappling with wrestlers on the mat. Similarly, the Bees’ Garrett Wilkerson would most commonly be linked with zinging a fielded grounder from second to first or hurling a pitch from the mound. Ditto for Fairmont Senior pitcher Ethan Hager.

But as the temperature heats up with a shift toward summer, or as the week winds down with Sunday lingering, Flint battles not other wrestlers assigned to his mat, but bass hitched to his hook. Wilkerson and Hager stop tossing baseballs and start casting lines.

All three of Flint, Wilkerson and Hager are members of Fairmont’s eight-man high school fishing club, which competes on the Bassmaster High School circuit, a burgeoning operation in West Virginia.

Just this year, 32 clubs, nearly 100 two-man teams and 196 individual anglers have participated in B.A.S.S. Nation of West Virginia’s series of four high school tournaments, according to B.A.S.S. Nation of West Virginia Youth Director Dana Brown.

“We went from averaging 20 or 25 teams at a state championship to, I think we had 80 two years ago,” said Fairmont club coach Dion Bright, who served as the state’s youth director in the mid-2000s.

Such exponential growth in the involvement of high schoolers is tied to a schedule change, according to Brown and Bright, one that doesn’t force athletes like Wilkerson and Hager to choose between a wielding a baseball glove or a fishing pole.

“I couldn’t get participants to the tournaments on Saturday because of baseball, or if it was in the fall, it would be soccer or football,” Brown said. “With that, I decided I’d move them to Sunday. Since I did that, it exploded.”

Just look to Fairmont’s club team as a test case. Flint plays golf and wrestles at East Fairmont. Hager and Stosh Apanowicz suit up for Polar Bear baseball, Wilkerson and Payton Sarsfield for Bee baseball. Ducatti Linn plays for EFHS’s basketball team and Zach Richards for FSHS’s soccer team.

“A lot of these kids, they play your spring and your fall sports,” said Bright, who’s also the coach of Fairmont Senior’s boys’ swim team.

The Fairmont club’s eight members split into four two-man teams come tournament time where they’re joined by a “boat coach,” essentially required volunteer captains due to the high school anglers not being permitted to operate the fishing boats. That demands considerable time investment from passionate fishermen, such as Bright and his partner on the adult Bassmaster circuit, Brian Closson, who are allowed to provide suggestions like potential hot spots, but aren’t allowed to fish themselves.

“The majority of the boat coach volunteers don’t have any kids in it, but they still volunteer their time,” Bright said. “They do the expenses of taking their boats to competitions, staying in hotels, food, gas and so forth. It’s all about volunteering the time and getting the kids involved in the sport. I think that’s what it’s all about is just getting them involved where they stay off the couch and get off the iPads, off the phones, off the Xboxes.”

Bright’s not an anti-technology curmudgeon. He’s been in awe too often for that as members of his team pull up articles and tap on videos oozing with information.

“Whenever I grew up at their age fishing it was like the Stone Age compared to the access of information that these kids have nowadays,” Bright said. “With social media and today’s digital world, I’ve even learned a lot from them just sitting in a boat and watching these kids.

“They’re willing to do it; that’s the great thing. They get really competitive, too.”

When competition reaches an apex in tournaments, Bright’s club team represents the aptly-named Fairmont Fishing Team, a sore spot for both Bright and Brown, who don’t see why Hager, Apanowicz and Richards can’t be a Polar Bear or why Flint, Wilkeson, Linn and Sarsfield can’t be a Bee while on the water, but can on the field.

When Bright inquired Fairmont Senior High School administration about starting a team through the school, he was shot down, something he called a “huge disappointment.”

“I don’t think there was one other high school that actually turned down having a fishing club attached to the school,” Bright said. “The boys wanted to wear their school colors as the other 100 high school teams do across the state.”

“They won’t really allow a fishing club in the schools, which is why we had to do a community club,” Brown said. “I’m really hoping this opens the eyes of the Marion County school system at how good of a program this is for the kids.

“It’s really a shame it hasn’t been around forever because it is such a great program. It’s not just the kids going out fishing or even the competitiveness within the tournaments, but we also require them to do a conservation project. Whether it’s wiping down boats to prevent the spread of a largemouth bass virus or a bacteria we don’t want into certain bodies of water, it brings them into the world of science and biology.

“Even marketing. These kids are marketing themselves like professional baseball players. There are actually kids in Fairmont who have national fishing rod sponsors.”

Bright adds that ample colleges across the country actually give out fishing scholarships, the most well known being Bethel University in McKenzie, Tennessee, right nearby the site of the high school national championship on Kentucky Lake in Paris, Tennessee. Fairmont’s closest universities, Fairmont State and West Virginia University each award fishing scholarships, along with other local colleges such as Glenville State College.

Who knows, maybe one day, when it comes to high school sports, a kid won’t be known for wrestling or baseball, soccer or basketball, but instead for yanking bass out of a river.

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Information from: Times West Virginian, http://www.timeswv.com

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