JENNIFER FIERRO • PICAYUNE STAFF
MARBLE FALLS — If you ask these athletes, they’ll tell you there are athletic scholarships out there that might not require countless hours in a weight room or on a track.
Rather, they spend hours standing in front of a target, in an arena and in a boat on the lake.
In the past 10 years, the Highland Lakes has produced three rodeo athletes who competed in college: Jess Seward and Savannah Koenig at Tarleton State University and Turner McQuaide at Sam Houston State University.
Last year, Katie Bridges signed a national letter of intent to compete on the Texas Christian University rifle team.
And two weeks ago, Faith Academy senior Austin Ellis was at Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., to sign his national letter of intent to become a member of the bass-fishing team.
What do these athletes have in common?
First, Tarleton’s rodeo team, TCU’s shooting team and Bethel’s bass-fishing team are all powerhouses in their respective sports. In short, these teams only sign the nation’s top student-athletes.
Second, these athletes followed similar roads to secure their scholarships. They discovered what they loved to do and competed at tournaments. They made contacts with college coaches and developed relationships that opened doors for scholarships.
And finally, their signings shatter the perception that athletic scholarships are only granted to athletes in traditional sports such as football, basketball, baseball and others.
“It’s significant scholarship money,” said Lorna Ellis, Austin’s mother.
The parents saw real interest by their children in these perspective sports, so they helped foster it.
In his case, the Ellis family didn’t have to look far. Lake LBJ is in their backyard.
“I really had a drive to do it,” he said about competitive fishing. “This is what I want to do in my life. It’s never going away.”
That led to the creation of the fishing club at Marble Falls High School two years ago. The club draws students from across Central Texas, including Cedar Park, Lake Travis, Burnet and Llano. The club’s success has helped other schools create fishing clubs.
Soon after Ellis began competing, he contacted Bethel coaches. As a result, they followed his progress and asked for film. It also helped, he said, to be able to tell them how the local fishing club started.
As for Bridges, she joined the Burnet County 4-H Shooting Club and began winning at every level. Soon, she qualified for national competitions that led her to Ohio, New Mexico and other states. She also competed on various U.S. teams that defeated other international teams and helped set records. As a result, TCU came calling.
And she hasn’t disappointed. During the inaugural Patriot Rifle Conference Championships on Feb. 9, she set new personal bests in air rifle and small bore. As a result, the Horned Frogs finished third with a score of 4,647.
Rodeo scholarships are awarded a little differently. Rodeo athletes are a lot like kickers and punters. Some university rodeo teams conduct scholarship rodeos. And the winners in each event are granted a scholarship. So it’s important for high school athletes to be at their very best on that day, just like kickers and punters. Football coaches put more weight on a high school player’s performance at a camp than they do during a season.
In McQuaide’s case, he had competed in rodeos in Region 10 and in the Central Texas Youth Rodeo Association. So he met several people, including rodeo coaches, who wanted him to compete for their school.
Once he signed with Sam Houston State, McQuaide received a scholarship that covered part of his tuition and a stipend that helped with entry fees, the care of his horse and other equipment. If he finished in the top five, he received prize money, which helped to reimburse for his entry fee and other expenses.
“He’s had the opportunities to do what he loves to do,” said his mother, Sandy McQuaide.
And just like other sports, these athletes are constantly aiming to improve their game. So if they’re not competing, they’re practicing.
Ellis said each time he’s on a lake, he realizes that what worked before might not work this time.
“I call it one of the hardest sports,” he said. “You have to adapt. There’s something different every time. Each time you go out there, you experience something new, and it gets harder.”
He summed up the feelings of many athletes seeking opportunities to compete in the sports they love on the next level.
“If we start this, we can start a whole dynasty,” he said. “Go after your dreams. It took me a couple of years to be where I am now.”