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Like so many million people in America, I spent the week before and after the new year watching college football bowl games.

From the first game, Arizona’s thrilling 49-48, come-from behind win over Nevada, to the last game, Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame in the BCS championship, my girlfriend Sarah and I watched as many bowl games as we could.

How lucky I am to have a girlfriend who is willing to sit around and watch college football games with me all day, well, that will have to wait for another column. What I want to talk about is the fact that Sarah and I both had a stake in the bowl games this year.

Through her company, Sarah was entered in ESPN’s Bowl Mania, a fantasy game where participants predict the winners of all 35 bowl games.

A few hours before kickoff of the Arizona/Nevada game, Sarah and I sat down at my computer together and went through the games. I cover the Oregon Ducks football team for the Portland Tribune, so I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of college football, and Sarah watches as much football as I do. When we were done, I was confident that we would at least win enough games to not look bad in front of the rest of her office.

That afternoon, we went to the gym for a run. By the time I had run about two miles and Sarah had run about four miles, Arizona had pulled off an improbable victory. We were 1-0. I nearly fell off the treadmill giving Sarah a high-five.

From that moment, I was absolutely hooked. I checked the Bowl Mania web site 10 times a day, I compared our results to the other eight people from Sarah’s office who were in the pool.

As a sports reporter, I never root for teams, even if I am not covering them. But, for the first time in I can’t remember how long, I cared who won every game. I would have never imagined being ecstatic about Ole Miss beating Pittsburgh, and yet I was.

It was not the $90 that Sarah and I would have won if we came in first place in the Bowl Mania pool. What I cared about was us putting our knowledge of college football against the other people in her office. And yeah, we should have won given that I actually make my living covering college football. But that did not make me any less happy when the dust had settled and we had gone 28-7 and won the pool.

On New Year’s Day, after watching Stanford beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, something occurred to me. Filling out NCAA Tournament brackets and bowl challenges is a way of life for a lot of people. Obviously, there is a stigma about it because whenever there is money involved, it becomes a form of gambling.

What I realized, though, was that if you take cash prizes out of the process, it could become an extraordinary fundraising tool for Hillsboro’s local high schools.

I went to a Catholic elementary school and every year we filled out a free NCAA bracket and the winner got a bag of candy. So I firmly believe that if you make the prize for the winner non-monetary then you alleviate any moral ambiguity about gambling.

So why shouldn’t Hillsboro and Century and Glencoe and Liberty sell NCAA Tournament brackets to students this March? Charge $10 a pop with the money going to the winner’s athletic program of choice. As a prize, give the student who wins a banner in the gymnasium proclaiming them the school champion. Or heck, give them a bag of candy.

I played baseball at Wilson High for Mike Clopton, one of the greatest fundraising coaches in the history of prep sports.

Every season Clopton would have the team sell tickets to a pancake breakfast and coupons for oil changes. For Clopton, fundraising was a part of building a successful program. And his ability to fundraise has been critical to the Trojans’ success the last few years.

It does not matter what kind of facilities and uniforms and equipment Hillsboro’s four local high schools have. Everything could always be better.

In the end, that is really what this column is about. Whether it is through charging $10 for a NCAA Tournament bracket or having pancake breakfasts, I would like to see Hillsboro’s high schools step up their fundraising and think outside the box.

Filling out brackets is simply my humble suggestion.

All I really know is that after Alabama trounced Notre Dame and Sarah and I won our bowl pool, she smiled at me and said, “Let’s do this again next year.”

I said that we would.

I hope the schools in Hillsboro will be doing the same.

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