March 8, 2014 by Gary Mortenson
SENECA, S.C. - Throughout the first two days of competition at the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship, the University of Louisiana-Monroe team of Brian Eaton and Nick LaDart dominated nearly all of the headlines. And rightfully so. As the defending national champions, all eyes were on ULM to see if the team could pull off back-to-back titles and equal the powerhouse run of the University of Florida - who captured national championship titles in 2009 and 2010. However, while ULM found itself atop the leadearboard on days one and two and seemed poised to sweep the most coveted trophy in all of college fishing two years running, a plucky little team from the University of Minnesota had other plans. Flying under the radar for a good portion of the tournament, U of MN teammates Austin Felix and Chris Burgan carefully plotted their strategy. After quickly analyzing the conditions - which were frigid, windy and downright nasty over the first two days of competition - Burgan and Felix opted to abandon their initial game plan and let the weather dictate their strategy. After the first day of tournament action, the U of MN team found itself in seventh. By the end of day two, the team had crept up the leaderboard into third place overall. Then, when the sun appeared and the conditions finally turned around on the final day of competition, the Golden Gophers pounced, hauling in a whopping 14-pound catch and easily cruising to victory by a margin of more than 3 pounds. Not surprisingly, the team couldn't have been happier with the results. "It's a dream come true," said Burgan, whose team walked away with a first-place prize package totaling $30,000, which included a brand new, fully rigged Ranger Z117, a tournament title as well as an automatic berth into the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup - the most lucrative and prestigious bass-fishing championship in the world. "When I stuck those two fish right in a row earlier today I thought, `If we could just catch a couple more, then we had a really good chance to put it all together.' To win is just unbelievable. My mom is probably going crazy right now." Amazingly enough, the Gophers trip to the national championship was almost over before it even began. "I've been diagnosed with long-term Lyme Disease and when we got here on Sunday morning I think my body really started wearing down," said Felix, of the long and grueling drive from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. "I had some new meds and had a horrible reaction Sunday night. I wound up going to the ER and had to get a bunch of steroids. I was just lucky that I had a patient partner (Burgan) because we wound up having to stay in the hotel room for two whole days while I recovered. Throw in the fact that we hadn't fished all winter and it's just amazing that we're here right now." However, it's just as clear that the University of Minnesota team earned every ounce. After realizing the weather wasn't going to be as conducive for largemouth fishing as they'd hoped over the first two days, the team decided to head to deeper waters and target spotted bass in hopes of landing a solid limit. The goal was to simply maintain their position near the top of the leaderboard and wait for the weather to shift before making their big move. And it worked to near perfection. "The day started off great today," said Burgan, whose team targeted its quarry throughout most of the tournament with a combination of Shaky Heads and Roller jigs in 30 to 40 feet of water, keying on main-lake humps and points. "We had three fish in the first hour. But then the bite turned off and that's when I really started freaking out." However, later in the day, as the sun warmed up Lake Keowee, the duo returned to their prime fishing area and found some more success. "We ran back to that same spot in the afternoon and stuck our two biggest fish," said Felix. "And that's when it really turned around for us." By the time final weigh-in had concluded, the team had amassed a healthy 37-pound, 8-ounce, three-day catch which was more than 3 pounds greater than their next closest competitor. And for their efforts, the team now gets an opportunity of a lifetime - a chance to compete in the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup. "To get a chance to fish against the fishermen I've looked up to my whole life is incredible," said Burgan, who will head to this year's Forrest Wood Cup as a co-angler. Burgan's partner was equally ecstatic to have an opportunity to fish in the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup. "It's one of those pipe-dream deals for me where you really get to test your mettle against the very best in this sport," said Felix, who will be competing in the Forrest Wood Cup as a pro with a chance to take home an additional $500,000 in prize money. Felix will also get to fish out of a fully rigged Ranger boat wrapped in Golden Gopher team colors. "I'm really excited. I don't know if we'll be ready or not, but we're going to give them hell." Felix, who has had to overcome so much just to get to this point, hopes that his national championship title is just one more stepping stone in both life and career. "This week was just a fantastic week. All the teams are awesome and it really is a great group of guys to compete against," he said. "My goal is to go pro one day. It might never become a reality, but this was a great first step." And nobody can argue with that. WVU snares runner-up position Sitting in fourth place heading into the finals, the West Virginia University team of Edward Rude III and Mathew Gibson managed to bring in the second-largest stringer on Saturday to jump up to the No. 2 position when all was said and done with a total, three-day catch of 34 pounds, 6 ounces. "It was tough out there. It was a grind all day," said Rude, whose team managed to parlay a final-day catch of 11 pounds, 1 ounce into a $5,000 second-place check. "Most of our spots didn't produce and we're scrambling around all day long. We wound up catching four of our fish in the last hour. And most of those fish came off of some docks." Unlike most teams who had hoped for some sun and warmer weather in the finals, the West Virginia team hoped for just the opposite. "I wish it would have been freezing and pouring down rain today because that's how we like to catch them," said Rude. "By the end of the day, we finally figured out what the fish wanted. I just wish we'd had a little bit more time. " The duo said it primarily employed an arsenal of jerkbaits, targeting shallow pockets and the back of coves to land the majority of their catch. "We also wound up junk fishing pretty much every day as well," said Rude. While the team didn't manage to walk away with the tournament title, the team said it was an invaluable experience nonetheless. "It was awesome," said Rude of being able to fish in the national championship. "It's a dream of mine just to be here. It really is a true blessing." ULM settles for third While the University of Louisiana-Monroe team of Brian Eaton and Nick LaDart were certainly disappointed that they didn't repeat as national champions, their 30-pound, 12-ounce total catch was still good enough to land them in third place overall - which is an incredible feat in and of itself. "It was really tough for us today," said Eaton. "We only got four fish in the boat the last two days and that really hurt us. We also had to really change things up today and go a lot slower." The team, which had been rolling along for the first two days of tournament action, ultimately ran out of quality fish when it counted most. "We were fishing the backs of creeks and creek ends," said Eaton. "We tried throwing A-rigs and single swim baits early, but we really weren't having much success. So we wound up switching to a Shaky Head for the rest of the day. Over the last 20 minutes we caught two fish, but we just ran out of a time. I really think that fish we didn't catch yesterday hurt us the most." In the end, ULM settled for third place overall as well as a nice check for $4,000. "Hopefully we'll be back again next year," said Eaton. Young Harris College grabs fourth place After experiencing a host of mechanical issues in yesterday's competition, it's somewhat amazing that the Young Harris College squad of Furman (Joe) Thompson and Grayson Payne made it to the finals in the first place. But the team persevered right through to the end, netting a three-day stringer weighing 30 pounds, 12 ounces to finish the national championship in fourth place. "The fishing was really a lot tougher today," said Payne. "The water levels were way up and we had to resort to Plan B and Plan C this afternoon. "Today we just went out there looking for quality fish and we we're only able to get four in the boat. We're trying to get at least one more 2-pounder and we probably could have culled, but we're swinging for the fences." The team said it targeted bass with a combination of jerkbaits, A-rigs and drop-shots, but just couldn't get the quality bites the team was hoping for. "We started off targeting docks but then the wind picked up and we started fishing the banks," Payne said. "We just let the wind (dictate) where we fished." Although the team didn't walk away the title, Payne and Thompson said they had no regrets. "It was a tough day. We swung for the fences but it just didn't work out," said Thompson. "But it's been a great trip." Payne echoed Thompson's sentiments. "It's been unbelievable," said Payne of the entire experience. "It was fantastic. And it's something I probably won't ever get a chance to do again in my life." For their efforts, the team finished with $3,000 in winnings. Chico State settles into fifth While the Chico State team of Nick Carrico and Andrew Loberg didn't get the national championship title they were hoping for, the team did make a little bit of history today, becoming the first West Coast team to finish the national championship in fifth place or higher. Previous to this year's event, no West Coast team had even qualified for the finals (CSU Monterey Bay landed in sixth place this afternoon - the first time in history that two teams for the Left Coast had qualified for the finals in national championship history). "It was definitely a lot slower today than the last two days," said Loberg. "We wound up with the same amount of bites, just not the same size. We eventually figured out some things later in the day but we just ran out of time." The team said that it targeted bass around islands and the backs of creeks, using a combination of A-rigs, drop-shots and Darter Heads equipped with various soft-plastic trailers. "The key was really finding the baitfish," Loberg said. "If you found the bait, you'd find the fish." All in all, the Chico State team said the experience of becoming the top qualifying team from the West Coast was an accomplishment in and of itself. "FLW really puts on a great event," said Loberg. "And it was a lot of fun to be here. It really was a great experience for us." For their efforts, the team won $2,000 in prize money as well as a place in the history books. Best of the rest Rounding out the top-10 team finalists: 6th: CSU-Monterey Bay (Matthew Diaz and Sebastian Resendiz) - 29-8 7th: Slippery Rock University (Benjamin Tawney and Tyler Branca) - 26-12 8th: Auburn University (Garrett Roberts and Timmy Ward) - 26-6 9th: University of Nebraska-Omaha (Ben Milliken and Ben Kroeger) - 25-9 10th: Eastern Kentucky (Ethan Snyder and Billy French) - 20-2 To view the complete standings, click here The 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship is presented by Lowrance Insight Genesis College Cup. End notes For winning the 2014 FLW College Fishing National Championship, the University of Minnesota team won a brand new, fully rigged Ranger Z117 with a 90-horsepower engine and an entry into the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup. The Forrest Wood Cup, the world championship of bass fishing, hosted by the Capital City Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board, will be held Aug. 14-17 on Lake Murray in Columbia, S.C., and will offer the collegiate anglers the opportunity to compete for a top award of $500,000.