Lander University isn't widely known for its fishing team, but that is about to change.
Next month, Bearcat seniors Ben Stone and Collin Smith will head to the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship (CSNC) in Bemidji, Minn., with a chance to not only bring Lander some high-profile recognition, but to realize their first step in a dream to fish professionally.
"The sky's the limit for both these guys," said Trevor Stewart, president of the Lander B.A.S.S. fishing team. "Their knowledge of fishing is extensive, they can adapt to any lake and fish, and if they win this tournament, it could lead to an opportunity to fish with professional anglers - the best fishermen in the world."
About 90 boat teams from 60 colleges and universities across the U.S. will compete Aug. 10-12 at Lake Bemidji, Minn. Anglers will be judged by the five biggest fish caught on each day of the tournament.
The best team will be crowned College Series National Champions.
"Winning this tournament can be a life-changing placement," said Hank Weldon, B.A.S.S. College Series senior tournament manager. "The winners will reign as national champions for one whole year, and they will have the opportunity to be on ESPNU, as well."
Smith and Stone qualified for the CSNC in March 2017 by placing fourth among 74 entries in the College Series Southern Regional at Winyah Bay in Georgetown, S.C.
They beat out teams from more than 30 southern universities, including Georgia, Clemson, Auburn, UNC-Charlotte, Mississippi State, Alabama, Florida and Florida State.
"Their appearance on a national stage next month will allow the Bearcat brand to be seen in areas where we do not have exposure," said Chase Cooley, team adviser and director of Lander's global outreach program. "It's a great opportunity for them, and Lander could not ask for better young men to represent our great university at the College Series National Championship."
The road to the championship was more than 10 years in the making - long before Smith and Stone had ever heard of competitive team fishing.
But once they entered Lander in 2013 and found that each of them had the same dream of big-time fishing - and the talent to make it happen - they set out to become professionals in the same vein as Bill Dance, known for his TV show Bill Dance Outdoors; and Ray Scott, who founded the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S) in 1967.
"It's been a dream since I was old enough to know what professional bass fishing was all about," said Smith, a senior business management major. "Instead of reading kids' books, I read Bassmaster magazines - and college fishing is a taste of what it is like to be on the road and the intensity of spending time on the water to find the fish needed to win big events."
Stone added that the upcoming CSNC will be their first attempt to get a foot in the door of professional fishing.
"Our minimum goal for the championship is to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic bracket (top four CSNC finishers qualify), and at least have a shot at qualifying for the 2018 Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell, S.C.," said Stone, a senior criminal justice major. "The main goal, though, is the same one that Collin and I have every time we fish in a tournament - to always work hard, have fun and let the cards fall where they may."
Regardless of the outcome, however, Smith and Stone said just making it into the CSNC is a huge accomplishment toward their dream, and toward some extra recognition for Lander.
"Not many Lander students can say they represented the school in a national championship event," Smith said. "And Ben and I feel honored and privileged to have this opportunity."