Carson-Newman team takes off

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Craig Lamb

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — Hunter Sales has aspirations of making the Carson-Newman Eagle Anglers a top-10 collegiate bass fishing team. After just one year they are well on the way.

Scholarships, travel budget, on-campus boat storage and recruiting at the high school level. All are key attributes of a top collegiate program. And they are already in place at Carson-Newman University.

Taking on such lofty goals and turning those into reality normally take years to achieve. Even more so in a sport that is still young and relatively unknown in the big scheme of collegiate sports.

And even more so when you are a 21-year-old, full-time student like Sales, who took on the challenge of leading all of the above goals into fruition. He will redirect all of the credit for this impressive achievement to his partner, Tristan Stalsworth, and even more so on the administration and faculty of Carson-Newman, an East Tennessee university with an undergraduate enrollment of about 1,700 students.

“I had this dream and the university got behind it, and they empower us all to reach for our dreams, and when we do, they are fully behind helping us achieve them,” he said.

Sales turned to resources within the university to help him create a business plan, marketing collateral and a team budget. The controller provided guidance about liability insurance and finances. The media department produced videos, social media content and even designed and paid for his boat wrap to promote the campaign.

“It was tough for a 20-year-old college kid to get people’s attention about starting a college bass fishing team,” he continued. “And even more challenging to sit down with the CEO of the university, make a marketing pitch, lay out a budget, but they listened and opened the doors.”

Aaron Porter, the team sponsor and also vice president of enrollment, opened those doors in the community for Sales. He made the most of the contacts.

“As a business minded person I realized for the program to be successful we needed sponsors and support from the local community,” said Sales, who came to Carson-Newman on a baseball scholarship.

“Jefferson County is such a fishing community, and especially Jefferson City and Dandridge, that everyone bought into the marketing and publicity efforts such a team could bring to the local economy,” explained Sales, who is from nearby Grainger County.

Bass fishing, and tournaments, delivers substantial economic impacts to the county. Cherokee and Douglas lakes are the reason. All levels of B.A.S.S. events are held on the lakes, from Bassmaster Elite Series to collegiate and high school tournaments. This week, Sales and his teammates are providing volunteer weigh-in support at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open.

“Having those lakes nearby, and the reputation of B.A.S.S. bringing tournaments, adds a lot of credibility to our program,” added Sales. “When you look at the top level college teams those are all near top-tier tournament fisheries.”

Popular fishing destinations also attract key retailers, including the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store in nearby Kodak, Tenn. The store sponsors the Bass Pro Shops High School Tournament Series, where Sales realized his dream for the college program.

“They have been absolutely instrumental in our success,” said Sales. “Having a sponsor and brand as powerful as Bass Pro Shops is a key influencer in our marketing success.”

So is the recruiting pool for the Eagle Anglers. The series of up to five tournaments attracts up to 100 boats per events. Overall performance is based on a point system. Sales wisely uses the points to choose recruiting prospects for the team.

A business major, he is on track to graduate in December. When Sales does he becomes the university’s first head coach, a title that he already has permission to use now for recruiting purposes.

“Anytime a 21-year-old college kid can use that title around high schoolers it turns heads,” he said. “They see my passion, then I talk about the resources we have at Carson-Newman, how I plan to stay with the program.”

He continued, “I think I have an advantage over some college coaches because of my age, because I still compete, and they can relate even more to me.”

The reach and connection goes beyond what Sales envisioned. Last spring he presented two Carson-Newman bass fishing team signees with their scholarship certificates. Sales did so at their high school graduation ceremony, where he spoke to the graduates, student body, faculty and families in attendance in Hazard, Ky.

The team that began last year with six students, including Sales and Stalsworth, will next season add 10 recent high school graduates.

“I’m super happy we have them, because they will become the future of the program,” he said. “It’s truly rewarding to go out and find these high school kids, bring them into a Christian university where I know they will get a good education, walk closer to God, fulfill their dreams.”

Sales’ has dreams coming true beyond his expectations. He feels divinely blessed as well. He will continue coaching the fishing team through graduate school—funded by Carson Newman—and the bass fishing program is being evaluated for inclusion in the athletic program. His title will become official, maybe more by then.

Sales and Stalsworth finished 47th in their first collegiate event, the 2017 Carhartt Bassmaster College Eastern Conference Regional presented by Bass Pro Shops. Next came a 17th-place finish at the College Series National Championship held last July.

Those successes pale by comparison to what has happened with the team growth and future.

“There is no other industry where a 21-year-old kid over his head can go to a university in one year and do all this,” said Sales, whose GPA is 3.9. “To have things in place for these college kids to realize their dreams is a blessing.”

Count Sales and his teammates—current and future—among those fortunate to have those opportunities ahead.