Top high school anglers from across the U.S. gathered for the second Bassmaster High School Combine on Wheeler Lake in Decatur, Ala., for a weekend combining skills challenges and recruiting visits in hopes of reeling in college fishing offers. After three challenges – Casting Distance, Technical and Casting Accuracy – the combine’s overall points winner was Phillip Herring of Richton, Miss.
With a total of 288 points, the Greene County High School senior narrowly edged Bryce Distefano of Denham Springs, La., by four points. In three total challenges, Herring finished no worse than 10th place out of 98 anglers.
Herring was surprised to take home the highest honor from the High School Combine.
“It feels pretty amazing,” Herring said. “I came in expecting to have the opportunity to talk to a few colleges and maybe even get a couple of campus visits out of it, but I didn’t really have any expectations for the competition part of this event.”
Herring, who attended the combine alongside teammate Calup Williams, has qualified for three consecutive Bassmaster High School National Championships. The duo also fished together at the 2019 Bassmaster Junior Series National Championship, where they finished seventh.
In addition to winning the overall award, the south Mississippi native also took home the first-place prize in the Technical Challenge. The Technical Challenge tested each angler’s ability to maneuver a Skeeter FXR20 bass boat around an obstacle and make three pinpoint casts to floating targets.
Herring was able to blaze through the Technical Challenge in just 42 seconds to take home his second piece of hardware.
“I turned the trolling motor up wide-open and began casting at the target as I was going around the obstacle and actually hit one target before even getting around it; then I hit the last two targets with my first two flips,” Herring said when asked about his strategy.
Herring accredited his fishing strengths of flipping and pitching to his success in the Technical Challenge as well as the Casting Accuracy Challenge, where he finished fifth.
“We fish a lot of shallow tidal rivers, so we’re flipping, pitching and making short little roll casts all the time, which helped out a lot,” he said.
Herring is looking forward to his campus visits and making a final college decision.
“This event helped me a ton,” he said. “I had an idea of about five to seven schools that I was interested in, but this event has helped me narrow it down to about three schools. This combine is really great overall; getting to meet all these other anglers and talking with the coaches is amazing.”
In just 35 seconds, Alex Standerfer of New London, Wis., was able to knock down every target with his Abu Garcia rod and reel combo to take the first-place prize in Casting Accuracy.
“I didn’t really have a strategy going into the event,” Standerfer said. “Coming from a river background, fishing around wood and getting your bait in places where others can’t is a strategy in itself, so this was definitely my forte.”
In addition to winning the Casting Accuracy Challenge, Standerfer finished eighth in the overall standings.
With a booming cast of 65 yards, Nathan Preston of Newnan, Ga., took first in the Casting Distance Challenge. Using an Abu Garcia Zenon Reel paired with an Abu Garcia Winch Rod, Preston cast a Berkley Cane Walker Topwater just inches farther than the second-place finisher Cambre Webb of Clinton, La., who cast 64.9 yards.
“I took a risk by turning the breaks completely off, loosening the spool tension all the way off and just prayed I didn’t backlash,” said Preston. “Out of three casts, I backlashed twice, but the one time I didn’t, I cast it 65 yards.”
Preston considers Lake Lanier his favorite tournament lake, and regularly throwing a big walking topwater played into his success in this event.
“We have a lot of schooling fish on Lake Lanier, so you’ll see them schooling and have to pick up a topwater and chunk it as far as you can, so I’ve done this before. It was right in my comfort zone.”
In addition to the three skills challenges, anglers spent portions of the weekend meeting with coaches representing 16 schools. After the first day, colleges could select anglers for a “second look” to further explore everything that angler has to offer and see if they would be a fit for their fishing program.
At the end of the weekend, two anglers – high school fishing partners Cody Morgan and Brant Langley from Florida’s Marion County High School Bassmasters – signed with Southeastern University and coach Weston Marsh, which will begin competing in Bassmaster College Series tournaments in 2024.
“There are so many amazing benefits to attending SEU, including new facilities and a great scholarship,” explained Morgan. “But it is also important to both of us to be part of building something here in our home state of Florida. We’re really excited.”
Only colleges offering bass fishing scholarships were invited to attend. The inaugural High School Combine in 2021 generated more than $2.6 million in scholarship offers.