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March 7, 2014

LOCAL SPORTS: Cullman Fishing set to take community by storm

CULLMAN — The list of established athletic programs at Cullman High is not a short one. There’s Bearcat baseball, football, basketball, soccer, tennis and softball. And golf, cross country, track and field, and swimming and diving, too.

But where does that leave room for bass fishing, the sport the school has cranked out such up-and-comers as Jordan Lee, Matt Lee and Jacob Fine?

For years and years, it hasn’t. At least not in a manner officially affiliated with the Black and Gold.

Until now.

This spring, there’s a fishing team on the Cullman High campus wielding Cullman High logos and backed by the best Cullman High has to offer — and they mean business.

Gone are the two years of Lee Mattox dutifully collecting dues, having jerseys made and helping prepare a rag-tag bunch of Bearcats for the high school state championship. In their wake is a legitimate operation ran by the boys, for the boys and in a fashion that makes the Black and Gold proud.

They market. They make videos. They draw sponsors. They utilize social media. Oh, and they even do a little bit of angling, too.

And at the head of it all is Kyle Morris. The 2005 Cullman High graduate, a middle school teacher and assistant football coach, was a member of Alabama’s fishing team from 2006-08, so who better to man to the Bearcats’ ship — er, boats?

The answer is no one according to Wil Blaylock.

“The difference between last year and this year has been coach Morris,” the sophomore said. “He’s put a lot into this team, and if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be in the position we are right now. He’s taken us to a whole different level.”

While the praise would certainly be appreciated, Morris prefers for the attention to be directed toward the kids who make up the team. After Mattox and Blaylock, the roster is rounded out by Mason Jones, Chayse Freeman, Jake Smith and Eli Parker.

Smith calls the squad a “tight-knit group of guys,” and Morris says each one brings a different set of skills to the table.

Mattox and Jones are the professionals, on and off the lake. Freeman is the one who’ll find a way to bring in fish in even the toughest of conditions — and keep the team laughing while he’s at it. Smith is the “whiz with video editing” who uses his GoPro to give Cullman Fishing an online presence and document the hard work they’re doing. Morris said “you never know what you’re going to get out of ol’ Wil,” a jokester in his own right, and that Parker is quiet but can “go out there and rope some bass.”

In fact, the coach said all of his “kids are really good sticks on the water.” Even more, they’re quality young men in general, which makes the time and effort he puts in completely worth it at the end of the day.

“They’re all great to work with,” Morris said. “There’s nobody on that team that when I see their number pop up with a text message or phone call that I dread answering. That’s a coach’s dream.”

In turn, a coach’s nightmare can be the parents he encounters over the course of a season. Try telling that to Morris, though. He’s yet to experience even the slightest of problems with any of the fishing team’s faithful parents.

“There’s never been one time I’ve asked them for something and got the least bit of resistance,” he said. “They’re just ready to go or do anything. They’ve been a huge help with getting this going.”

Internal support is necessary, but it’s not exactly enough to allow a squad of six anglers to consistently compete in one of “the most expensive sports there is.” For that, the team has had to dive headfirst into securing sponsors and holding fundraisers, from raffles to T-shirt sales to the inaugural tournament its set to host this weekend at Smith Lake Park.

Interested anglers are invited to show up Saturday morning in time to take off at the first sight of light. The cost to enter is $100 per boat, with half the proceeds going toward the payout and the rest to the team. Pre-registration is not necessary.

Weigh-in will take place at 3 p.m. Morris said the post-tourney festivities will include a DJ and food.

“The heart of fishing is and always has been in Alabama. People here care about it,” the coach said. “When you’ve got a community like Cullman, if you need something for the kids, the people here are willing to do whatever it is to get it done. It’s been unbelievable.”

Most prep athletes dream of winning a state title for their school, but that’s currently unattainable for the Bearcats and every other squad in Alabama.

According to a recent al.com interview with Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Saverese, blue maps will only be extended to high school anglers once bass fishing is recognized as an athletic sport by the National Federation of High Schools. Per the AHSAA constitution, 10 percent of the state’s schools would also need to commit to participating.

“The Alabama High School Athletic Association is an athletic association, not an activity association,” Savarese told al.com.

That lack of current interest in adding bass fishing to the AHSAA umbrella is disheartening to Morris, but he’s not about to pout over it.

He still keeps the AHSAA’s ideals in mind when it comes to teaching student-athletes lessons away from the field of play. Morris said he believes there’s no better sport — football, baseball and basketball included — for kids to do just that.

“It provides a life skill for these guys that nothing else really does. It’s just a different animal,” the coach said. “You have the unique experiences of going out and working on marketing, real marketing, not sitting in a classroom talking about marketing. It’s real experience with people who can work with them the rest of their lives.”

These Black and Gold anglers don’t just talk the talk, either. Two weeks ago at the Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville, the boys walked the walk, too. They put their newfound knowledge to the test by mingling with industry chieftains and introducing the Cullman High brand to as many business leaders as possible.

Morris is confident those great lengths will pay dividends in the future. In fact, he said that’s the spirit of high school fishing, which, for those passionate about making a living in the sport, “gives you the opportunity to meet people and make connections to go the next level.”

“People can say whatever they want, but the truth of the matter is connections mean everything in every walk of life,” Morris said. “It’s a lot easier to walk through the door if you know somebody on the other side. This gives you a chance to meet those people, work for those people and show them your worth.”

Smith is just one of Cullman’s anglers who’d like to pursue fishing as a profession. If he’s not lucky enough to go pro, though, the junior still wants to stick around the industry. Smith said his baby is his GoPro and that he wants to revolutionize the tool like Shaye Baker, a former Auburn University teammate of the Lees.

While other athletes sweat out practices on the football field, baseball diamond, soccer pitch or track, Smith is content to hit the water and see what each session has in store.

“There’s nothing that could be better than being outdoors learning more about the lake and how the fish are reacting,” he said. “It’s really relaxed. There’s not a lot of pressure on you. It’s just going out there and having fun.”

That last nugget is what it’s all about for Blaylock. To him, there’s nothing better than knowing there’s a tournament to look forward to that he’ll be able to compete in with some of his best buddies.

“It’s so exciting, you can’t explain,” Blaylock said. “It’s just the top of the line.”

Someone cover Mark Britton’s eyes for this next part. Blaylock, also a nose guard on the gridiron, said he prefers fishing over football.

Hard to believe? Maybe. But it’s also hard to blame the kid after hearing him out.

“Every time we all get together, it might not even be for a tournament, it just feels good to be with everyone,” Blaylock said. “You just feel free out on the lake.”

% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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