PARIS, Tenn. – Last year, Hunter Owens stood on the Bassmaster stage and accepted $875 in scholarship money for being part of the Natchitoches (La.) Central High School team that finished fourth in the High School Series National Championship.
A year later, his parents, Becky and Rusty Owens, were on the same stage, presenting the unused funds to a pair of other young anglers.
Hunter Owens died in a car wreck near his home on Feb. 26. He was only a few months from his high school graduation, and a few more months shy of starting college and presumably membership with a college bass fishing team.
Owens was remembered on Aug. 10 at the conclusion the Mossy Oak Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors. After each of the top 12 teams came forward to collect scholarship money they earned for this year’s outstanding performances, it was announced that the team with the heaviest one-day weight of the tournament would receive the $875 Hunter won in 2018 but was never able to use.
Becky and Rusty Owens handed the oversized foam board check to Grayson Morris and Tucker Smith of Birmingham, Alabama’s Briarwood Christian School, who had just won their second consecutive national championship.
It was a poignant ending to what was a landmark day for Morris and Smith, but everyone involved agreed wholeheartedly that it was a suitable way to remember Hunter.
“He definitely would have wanted this,” said Wes Rollo, who was the other half of the Natchitoches Central team that placed fourth in the 2018 tournament. “He would have wanted someone to use it. And to do it here in a place that meant a lot to us is special. I’m glad his parents are here, and I’m grateful that B.A.S.S. is allowing it to happen.”
This year’s championship was especially bittersweet for Rollo, who graduated from Natchitoches Central in the spring. Like Owens, he also won $875 in scholarship money for last year’s finish (they split a $1,750 prize). But Rollo’s money will help pay his tuition at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches where he will be part of the school’s bass fishing team.
Rollo wore Owens’ Natchitoches Central fishing jersey to the scholarship presentation on Aug. 10. It was a show of support for Owen’s family and friends in attendance but was a way to remember his friend too.
“My partner this year (William Powell), we fished all the same spots that Hunter and I fished last year,” Rollo said. “We fished the same way we did last year. It hurts to be here without (Hunter), but I’m glad I can be here for my last high school tournament.”
Rollo described Owens as a “funny dude” who “knew how to catch fish.”
“We knew what the other one was thinking in the boat,” Rollo said. “I could throw a topwater bait, and he just knew to use a midwater bait, something that allowed us to cover more of the water column. We relied on one another like that…He was a really great fishing partner.”
Louisiana B.A.S.S. Nation Youth Director Gene Hoover said Owens’ tragic death shocked his state’s bass fishing community. Their response also showed how the group came together to help heal, he added.
“We were at Toledo Bend (for a tournament) and about 20 or 25 of our fishermen who didn’t even know him went to his services,” Hoover said. “That touched his parents. It touched all of us.”
B.A.S.S. College, High School and Junior Series director Hank Weldon said the decision to repurpose the scholarship money Owens earned was an easy one.
“What better way to honor Hunter than to help someone else go to school?” Weldon said.
B.A.S.S. awarded nearly $24,000 in college scholarship awards to the top 12 teams (24 anglers) at this year’s national championship. In addition, to the $875 Harris and Smith received in Owens’ honor, they earned an additional $4,500 (or $2,250 apiece) for finishing first in the tournament.
In all, 300 teams from 243 different high schools competed in the championship. They represented 40 different states and one Canadian province. Teams qualified via one of four Bassmaster High School Series tournaments held earlier this year, or through their individual state qualifying events.
The Carroll County (Tenn.) Tourism Authority, Henry County (Tenn.) and Bethel University hosted.