This story appeared in the December ESPN RISE Magazine.
Dylan Vaughn and Kaleb Gardner: Illinois bass fishing state champions. A year ago, the juniors from Frankfort (West Frankfort, Ill.) never thought they'd hear a statement like that.
The two close friends have been avid fishermen since elementary school, but it was just something they'd do in their free time. Then last year, the Illinois High School Association decided to make bass fishing a state-sanctioned sport, becoming the first state to do so.
Once Vaughn and Gardner found out, they couldn't wait to sign up for Frankfort's program, which is headed by Travis Noto and assisted by their fathers, Keith Vaughn and Chuck Gardner.
"It's crazy," Kaleb Gardner says. "We never thought this would be a sport. When it became a sport, we were all for it."
Vaughn and Gardner placed second at sectionals to become one of 53 teams to earn a spot in the two-day state tournament held last May at Carlyle Lake.
After a tough first day in which they caught only three fish and stood in fifth place, Vaughn and Gardner rebounded to reach their five-fish-per-day limit on the final day of competition. With roughly 10 minutes to go before the weigh-in, Vaughn filled out the team's catch by hooking a one-pounder that just reached the 12-inch length minimum. Frankfort's total weight of 16 pounds, 4 ounces bested second-place Zion-Benton's (Zion, Ill.) haul of 15 pounds, 7 ounces in front of 1,200 spectators at the weigh-in.
Vaughn and Gardner were welcomed back to West Frankfort later that night with a parade as the town celebrated the nation's first-ever bass fishing state champs.
"People are always going to remember the first ones," says Vaughn.