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CastingKids finalists prepare for competition

Kiana Clark, 10, is the defending CastingKids champion in the 7-10 age group. 

CELEBRATION, Fla. — One contestant said he would celebrate a victory by having a big party. Another said he would "go crazy and dance."

Those are two of the 12 brightest and potential future stars of bass fishing, who will compete for $21,000 in scholarships during the Bassmaster CastingKids finals and championship in conjunction with the CITGO Bassmaster Classic, Feb. 24-26, on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla.

The CastingKids program was developed in 1991 to teach the fundamental techniques of bass fishing to children, with competitions that focus on pitching, flipping and casting a hookless lure at a bull's-eye target. The 12 finalists this year advanced through local, state and national semi-final levels and will now compete in the finals representing six divisions of the country.

"I think it's a good program," said Connie Mellette, mother of Ryan Mellette, 14, of Okeechobee, Fla., who is representing the Southern division. "I love it and my kids are really into it. It helps keep them busy and doing something positive, and it helps promote fishing."

Ryan, who is making his first trip to the nationals after having been a state champion previously, said he is eager to compete. "I'm really excited to go up there, and I think I have a really good chance," he said.

While the Mellettes have a short trip from their Florida home to the finals, the Schaefer family will travel from Omaha, Neb., to cheer on 10-year-old Brad Schaefer, a finalist in the age 7-10 age group for the Central division. Despite winning three previous state titles, this is Brad's first trip to the nationals.

"It's been great for us," said Randy Schaefer, Brad's father. "We've gotten to do things we've never dreamed of. When you go, you feel like family. You meet a lot of really, really good people. The kids and the adults make new friends."

Like all of the finalists, Mellette and Schaefer are taking the competition seriously. "I practice a lot," said Mellette, who has been fishing as long as he can remember. "Two weeks before every competition, I'm out in the driveway practicing every day."

The rugged Nebraska winter forces Schaefer to practice pitching and flipping inside, and on warmer days he practices his long casts in the driveway. "He practices all the time," his father said.

Both youngsters aspire to be professional anglers. "I love the fight bass put up when you hook them," said Mellette, whose favorite BASS angler is 2006 CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mike Iaconelli. "When he catches one, he goes crazy and dances around everywhere," he said. "If I win, I'll go crazy and dance like Mike does."

Schaefer, whose favorite pro is reining Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam, hopes his upcoming trip to the Classic gives him a chance to meet his hero in person. "I want to meet some of the pros," he said. "I'll have a big party at home if I win."

In addition to Schaefer, finalists in the age 7-10 group are:

Northern: Charles Rankin, 10, Argyle, Iowa
Southern: Ryan Bush, 10, Big Stone Gap, Va.
Mid-Atlantic: 2005 CastingKids Nationals finalist Bryce Bason, 10, Mill Hall, Pa.
Eastern: Chase Laflamme, 10, E. Waterboro, Maine
Western: Defending CastingKids National Champion Kiana Clark, 10, Richland, Wash.

Mellette will compete with the following finalists in the 11-14 age group:

Northern: Josh Koester, 13, Teutopolis, Ill.
Mid-Atlantic: Alex Thomas, 14, Crofton, Md.
Western: Jori Clark, 10, Richland, Wash.
Eastern: Cory Laflamme, 12, E. Waterboro, Me.
Central: Ory Schuman, 14, Lincoln, Neb.

"The event has been fantastic and it's been a phenomenal year," said Stacy Twiggs, senior manager of BASS youth programs. "We've had a lot of positive feedback from the parents, and the families love the events."

The 12 contestants will compete in an 11 a.m. preliminary final at the Classic ESPN Outdoors Expo presented by Under Amour at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday, Feb. 25. The top two seeds in each age group will advance to the finals, which will be part of that day's pre-weigh-in show at the convention center.