Meet the All-Girls Bass Fishing Team from Notre Dame Academy
The strong athletic tradition at Notre Dame Academy is well known and now the Pandas are competing on the lake in bass fishing.
Three years ago, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) officially made bass fishing a varsity sport and Notre Dame became the first school in the area to form a team.
Head coach Pete Salkowski loves to fish, and when he saw that KHSAA made it official, he contacted the school to lead the group. The program is run strictly on a volunteer basis and Salkowski gives a lot the program's credit to the parents and other adults that volunteer their time, resources, and even boats.
The team competes in tournaments that require two anglers per boat, and the boat with the five heaviest fish in the end, wins. There is no live bait, it is catch and release, and is a serious and competitive atmosphere, not the leisurely fishing people are used to.
“You got to be on it. You've got make good casts, you have to get your fish in the boat, it's a competition,” Salkowski said.
There are only two KHSAA bass fishing events: the regional and the state tournaments. That isn't to say that the team only fishes twice a year though. The team also competes in a host of club tournaments against other schools outside of the KHSAA season throughout the year.
“The goal is to really almost be a year-round thing,” Salkowski said. “It's the overlap of the club tournaments and high-school tournaments. What most places did, is they already had club teams in place. So when KHSAA made it a varsity sport, they kind of took that club team and copy and pasted it as their high-school team, but we came at it in a different direction and started out only competing in KHSAA events.”
The first Pandas bass fishing team had six girls and they went to one tournament at Kentucky Lake in 22-degree weather. It may seem like the next season, the turnout would be lower after the sparse inaugural season, but it was the opposite: 28 girls joined the team.
“Everybody wanted to do it. It was great, but it was almost a little too much to handle,” Salkowski said. “There were a lot more tournaments, we were in the regional this time, and we missed out on qualifying for the state tournament by one fish.”
Finding enough boats to use is a challenge for any school fishing team and that is no different for NDA. With so many team members in year two, Salkowski found it difficult to round up enough boats for everyone.
“None of this would be possible without the volunteers. It is a huge volunteer effort. A lot of times we are putting out the word on social media, through school. If we're going to a tournament, we will ask the people down there if they can find us a boat, it's the number one thing for us. We can't thank them enough and we wouldn't have a team if it weren't for our volunteers.”
Of course, being an all-girls fishing team tends to catch people's curiosity as well.
“I'm sure we're the only all-girls team in the state, maybe the country. There are girls on other teams, but not all-girls teams. They rally around each other and psych each other up. A lot of them play other sports and are kind of used to that camaraderie. I think they like the fact they can go out there against the boys,” the coach said. “The fish doesn't know who is on the other end of that pole. I think the girls are little more patient, they're very dedicated and they're very open to suggestion.”
“Being all girls is pretty neat. We go to a lot of tournaments where there might be one or two other girls, maybe a bigger high-school team but that's really it,” said junior Mariah Bezold. “People are really surprised that we are on an all-girls fishing team.”
There are no seniors on the current team which just missed out on advancing to the state tournament. The team's best finish was third place in a club tournament. Coach Salkowski has collected donated fishing poles at the school for girls who want to fish but have no equipment of their own. The team fishes in almost any weather except for lightning and fog. He said that being a team is important to him and the girls.
“I don't want to close the door on anyone who wants to learn,” he said. “The way we do that is that we will have a year-round club at school and then we'll have a varsity team. I really like fishing and I want to share what I like and I want to be as inclusive as I can be. We've come a long way but we have a long way to go still. I would like to qualify for state, I think we're close to that.”
“It's a really cool experience to fish as a part of a team. There are all different levels of learners, so we all just kind of learn as we go,” Bezold said. “I love going to the lake. A lot of times, the day before a tournament, I will go to the lake and fish to check the lake out. Sometimes it's kind of anxious having school on Friday and having to leave right after school and drive all the way down there, but I think everyone enjoys it. We all ride down together and it's a nice road trip. It is a little time consuming compared to other sports, but I think the whole experience with your team is worth it.”
There are some moments in sports that offer unique thrilling experiences: a buzzer-beating basket, a diving catch, a game-winning goal. Catching a fish can rank among those special moments in sports and the Notre Dame Pandas are finding that out first hand.
“That's my favorite feeling in the whole world,” Bezold said about catching a fish. “It's such a rush when you get a bite that I have to calm myself back down. Seeing the fish come into the boat is one of the greatest moments in my life. Maybe you hadn't caught a fish all day, and then you get one, all of your energy comes back and you just want to keep fishing.”
Story & photos by Bryan Burke, associate editor