LEESBURG, Fla. — Before the 2020 season began, Bethel University head fishing coach Garry Mason said he thought it would be more of a rebuilding year for his program.
“A lot of my guys who were really great anglers were graduating out this past year,” Mason said. “It seems like our freshmen, sophomores and juniors moved in and filled those shoes, and great things happen. Next thing we knew, we were back to winning championships.”
Instead of a rebuilding, Bethel continued its streak of excellence by winning two regular season Carhartt Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops events and qualifying six boats for the National Championship on the Harris Chain of Lakes starting today.
The program is seeking its third consecutive National Championship title after winning in 2018 at Lake Tenkiller and in 2019 at Lake Chickamauga. Bethel anglers have also qualified for the Classic Bracket tournament all but one year the tournament has existed.
“Any time you wind up on top, you’ve done something extraordinary,” Mason said. “These guys out here from every school are phenomenal anglers, and they work hard at it. Each and every time we find ourselves on top at a tournament, I don’t take that lightly. Our anglers worked really, really hard. We came off winning the tournament over at Bull Shoals and then won the (2019) Bassmaster National Championship and won the Classic Bracket. Then Cody (Huff) and Dakota (Pierce) won the very first Bassmaster tournament off the bat.
“I thought, I don’t know if we can continue at this pace. After COVID hit and we were stuck in the muck, we went and won at Hartwell, and it was just icing on the cake for a great 12 months.”
After Carter McNeil and Cole Floyd won the 2019 National Championship and Cody Huff won the Classic Bracket, the 2020 season started with a bang for Bethel as Huff and Dakota Pierce opened the season with a victory at Toledo Bend with a three-day total of 60 pounds, 7 ounces. That win, Mason said, set the tone for the remainder of the season.
“Of course, Cody and Dakota were a tough act to follow,” Mason said. “It set the bar high for our other guys and they all picked up the batter when they graduated and continued on with it. It’s a great thing when you get to see your star athletes being mimicked by your younger guys.”
Huff followed his victory at Toledo Bend with two national accomplishments, an FLW Toyota Series victory at Toledo Bend a week after the College Series event followed by a 24th-place finish in the Bassmaster Classic in March. He and Pierce, however, will not be competing at the Harris Chain this week.
After a tough Smith Lake event followed by an extended break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Bethel’s Cody Gregory and Levi Mullins secured the program's second win of the season at Lake Hartwell in August.
“They didn’t have that good of a practice,” Mason said. “As a matter a fact, they were a bit down after they got through practice. They thought they had kind of blown it during practice. But the first day of the tournament, they were able to get on some fish that they hadn’t been on before, and they just stayed with that concept throughout the tournament.”
Heading into the 2020 National Championship, Mason said his team has been feeling confident about their chances at a three-peat.
“They are very upbeat and feeling pretty good about it,” he said. “We were down here in February for another tournament so these aren’t unfamiliar waters for some of our guys. It doesn’t matter where you go, you are fishing for the same species of fish, just a different time of the year and different place. These guys are upbeat and ready to prove themselves and trying to take home another National Championships. It’s going to be a hard fight all the way down the line.”
Check out how Bethel and the rest of the field performs on the Harris Chain at 3:30 p.m. ET on Bassmaster.com when teams begin crossing the stage for Day 1 weigh-in.