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Leesburg pro fishing team officially arrives after season-ending, $25K win for first career victory

Shawn Vallandingham, right, and Ryan Tiernan not only took home $25,000 and the coveted trophy for their win at the season-ending redfish championship, but they secured their spot in the 2013 Series. (Photo courtesy of theredfishseries.com)

Shawn Vallandingham, right, and Ryan Tiernan not only took home $25,000 and the coveted trophy for their win at the season-ending redfish championship, but they secured their spot in the 2013 Series. (Photo courtesy of theredfishseries.com)

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Leesburg’s Shawn Vallandingham, left, and Ryan Tiernan hold up the monster redfish they caught on the final day of the season-ending Academy Sports and Outdoors HT Redfish Series finale last week in Slidell, La., securing the rising fishing duo’s first pro win in two years in the Series. (Photo courtesy of theredfishseries.com)

SLIDELL, La. — As the hand on the scale climbed upward, higher than anyone thought it would go, climbing right along with it were the professional fishing careers of Leesburg’s Ryan Tiernan and Shawn Vallandingham.

A few hours later, the headline on the HT Redfish Series’ website said it all: “Vallandingham and Tiernan shock the fishing world with come-from-behind win!”

“We’d finally arrived at that moment, I felt like,” Tiernan said. “We’d been knocking on the door, but in Slidell — at the one tournament everyone wanted to win at the end of the year — we did it. It was unbelievable.”

Tiernan, 36, and Vallandingham, 39, have only been fishing the invitation-only HT Redfish Series — which is home to just 32 hand-picked teams from around the country — for two seasons after their results in smaller series in Florida during the last few years captured the attention of Redfish officials.

And now, Team Evinrude Outboards is the circuit’s biggest rising stars.

“All these guys who have been out there fishing for years and the guys who run the tour were coming up to us afterward and telling us how we deserved this,” Tiernan said. “We’re one of the smallest teams out there in terms of notoriety and funding (from sponsors), but everyone seems to recognize how hard we work and how much time we put into trying to be the best.”

For their efforts, the Leesburg duo took home a check for $25,000, while the points they earned for the win helped them finish in the Top 15 in the end-of-the-year standings. The Top 20 finishers automatically secure their spots in the series for 2013.

“It feels amazing,” said Vallandingham, a residential real estate investor when he’s not fishing, while Tiernan sells commercial insurance. “We’ve worked really hard to set ourselves up for this opportunity, and it finally paid off. We won the big one — the one all the guys on tour want to win.”

But getting to the top of the podium in Slidell was no easy task. The duo trailed on the scales after the first two days of the three-day tournament, and they knew they’d need a strong finish to overtake the leaders for their first win.

Well ... they got that — and then some.

Tiernan and Vallandingham weighed in a whopping 46.94 pounds for the three days of fishing, a 7.82-pound average per fish, and when the scales settled on the final team to weigh in, it wasn’t even close as 2.23 pounds separated Team Evinrude from Team Majek boat’s Dwayne Eschete and Clark Jordan.

“What made this even sweeter was that out of all the 32 teams fishing this series, we’re the only ones from Georgia,” Tiernan said. “There’s two from Florida, one from South Carolina and us — and all the rest of the teams are from Texas and Louisiana, where all the tournaments are held. So basically, this little, underfunded team from Georgia — that doesn’t fish these waters except in these tournaments — came over and beat these guys, many of who are professional fishing guides, in their own backyard.

“That just felt great.”

The HT Redfish Series only has four tournaments a year, so each one is like a grand slam in golf or tennis.

“To win one out of the four, when you only have four chances a year, is incredible,” Tiernan said. “We felt very fortunate.”

To prepare for each tournament, the duo leaves Southwest Georgia a week ahead of time to pre-fish for five days on whatever waters the event is being held. In the case of the end-of-the-year tournament in Slidell, Tiernan said he felt they’d stumbled onto something special during the final day of warmup fishing.

“There was a spot that we don’t usually fish that we decided to try on the final time out — and we ran into a ton of fish,” he said. “We fished that spot for three straight days, and the final day it paid off.”

Behind by three pounds entering the final day, Vallandingham said he knew they needed to target the biggest fish possible and were aiming to come back to the dock with as many redfish that were as close to the 27-inch maximum allowance as possible.

But he was admittedly a little nervous as they sped out onto the water that day.

“Well, the guys from the tour came up and asked us if they could put a camera on our boat the final day, and I wasn’t too sure about it because I’m a little superstitious and we’d been doing fine on our own the first two and were in a position to win,” Vallandingham said. “But we agreed, and as it turned out, they came up to us after and said they thought they had some of the best footage they’d ever gotten because of the fact we had come back to win.”

The episode featuring the Leesburg duo’s win is expected to air later this year on the World Fishing Network.

And that’s music to Tiernan’s ears because he said the career-changing win — and the exposure — has made sponsors around the nation take notice.

“We’re sponsored locally by the commercial insurance company I work for, Doherty, Duggan & Rouse, and by Loco’s Pub in Albany, but since our win we’ve been getting calls from a lot more people to talk about sponsorships,” said Tiernan, who estimates he and Vallandingham spend around $10,000 a year out of their own pocket between entry fees, hotels, fuel, bait, food and drinks. “So this win did a lot (for our fishing careers). It put us on the map.”

The map gets wider in 2013 as the series expands to five tournaments with the first-place prize money at each stop rising from $25,000 to $40,000, and the end-of-the-year event the duo just won will up the ante to $50,000 for first place.

“That sounds good to us,” Tiernan said with a laugh. “The response and congratulations we’ve gotten since we won have made all the hard work worth it. We can’t wait to go back and defend our title.”