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Final pick for Ky Sportsman of Year was easy; process was not

The “race” for the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year Award figures to be about as competitive as the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Former Wildcat Anthony Davis likely will play the part of Secretariat, “moving like a tremendous machine” (to quote the great racing announcer Chic Anderson) as he storms to the finish line.

Davis had the single-greatest freshman season in the history of NCAA basketball (and one of the best in general), leading his team to a national championship, earning Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four, being named a first-team All-American and sweeping virtually every award the sport has to offer.

AD. Done deal. But what about the rest?

Those of us privileged to vote in the balloting conducted among media members by the Lexington Herald-Leader are presented with a long list of candidates – men and women competing in a variety of sports – high school, college and professional. There are athletes (including the equine variety) as well as coaches and we’re all asked to rank our Top 10.

Whoever garners the most #1 votes doesn’t necessarily win, as the final tally is by a point system. So it comes down to who is represented the most, and as the best.

In chatting with colleagues, I haven’t come across anyone who is NOT voting Davis number one. But, as always, differing opinions often make for great debate. And that is one of the most endearing elements of being a sports fan – discussing the ins and outs, ups and downs of teams, athletes and coaches.

My WKYT colleague, executive sports producer Steve Moss, already has weighed in publicly with his ballot on wkyt.com. Of course, he voted Davis #1 but our ballots go in somewhat opposite directions after that. And I suspect mine will be like few (if any) others for one important reason:

I didn’t vote for any coaches.

That’s not to say none of them deserves it. That’s the problem – they do. A LOT of them belong on the final ballot. And I have voted for them throughout the years, including former Eastern Kentucky football coach Roy Kidd, ex-UK coach Rick Pitino and John Calipari, who deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the way he recruited, managed and coached last year’s NCAA title team.

But as I went through my initial list, I realized so many of them deserved mention in their own right. Matthew Mitchell led the UK women to an SEC basketball championship. Gary Henderson coached the baseball Wildcats to a #1 ranking and a record number of wins.

Louisville’s Charlie Strong put together a Sugar Bowl championship football team. His colleague, Pitino, took another squad to the Final Four.

At the high school level, Trinity basketball coach Mike Szabo led his team to the Sweet 16 title, perhaps the most coveted trophy in Kentucky prep sports. Bob Beatty led the Shamrocks to their third straight 6A football championship. He deserves mention but, for that matter, so does every mentor whose team won a KHSAA title, including Woodford County baseball coach Jeff Parrett.

While we’re at it, we can throw in administration: UK’s Mitch Barnhart had four teams win SEC titles, four coaches named Coach of the Year in their respective sports, four SEC Players of the Year and a national championship men’s basketball team. Tom Jurich saw his U of L men’s basketball team make the Final Four, and his football team win the aforementioned Sugar Bowl.

Nick Nicholson retired after 12 years as president of Keeneland, guiding Lexington’s iconic racetrack through some of its most challenging times.

So I decided, just this once, to go strictly with athletes, not that it made the job that much easier.

So many choices, so few slots on the ballot. Major sports, “minor” sports, professionals, college athletes, high schoolers and Olympians, who competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Lafayette product Tyson Gay finished fourth in the fastest 100-meter dash in the history of the Games, and won a silver medal in the 4X100 meter relay.

Louisvillian Clark Burkle was second in the 200 breaststroke in the U.S. Olympic trials and placed sixth in London – plus, I think his dad grew up down the street from me, but I’m not sure (not that it would have landed him my vote).

Most of them competed here in the Bluegrass State, but some excelled away from home, including Trent Steelman, a product of Bowling Green High School. Steelman this past fall wrapped up his college football career at Army, where he was a four-year starter at quarterback, finishing as the all-time leader in rushing TDs and rushing yards by a QB at West Point. There will be no NFL draft in his immediate future; Steelman, like all his fellow military academy classmates, will be commissioned upon graduation and receive his military deployment.

So with all these incredible athletes and coaches from which to choose (112 on the ballot, and write-ins are acceptable), I decided that this year, just this once, I would vote strictly for athletes.

The coaches for whom I might have voted basically are represented on my list by the athletes from their respective teams. My reasoning was, if you vote for a coach, you have to vote for a player from his/her team as well.

So here is my list, my final 10. The winner will be announced, as it was last year, at the second annual Bluegrass Sports Awards Banquet in Lexington on Jan. 31. The name will be revealed simultaneously at Kentucky.com:

1. Anthony Davis (seems rather obvious, doesn’t it?)
2. Dermontti Dawson (inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the sport’s highest honor. I always favor people who achieve at the highest level in their individual sport and the former Wildcat, considered perhaps the greatest NFL center ever, was enshrined last summer).
3. Teddy Bridgewater (he had a great season, and led his team to the most impressive upset in all of the college football bowl games).
4. A’dia Mathies (SEC women’s Player of the Year, who led her team to a conference championship and the Elite Eight).
5. Dale Romans (thoroughbred trainer who had a monster year, with nine Grade I stakes victories, including one in the Breeders’ Cup. Also swept the spring and fall training titles at Churchill Downs. I suppose he is “technically” a coach, but let’s not mince words).
6. James Quick (Mr. Football, also named Paul Hornung Award winner and Gatorade high school football Player of the Year in Kentucky; he led Trinity to its state title).
7. Eric Quigley (UK tennis player SEC Player of Year; finished second in the NCAA Tournament after beating five ranked players to reach the finals; set a school record for wins in a season).
8. Justin Thomas (I know, not a household name or “mainstream” sport, but all the St. X grad did as a freshman golfer at Alabama was win the SEC individual championship and the NCAA Tournament Athens Regional; was named SEC Player of Year, SEC Freshman of Year and won the Nicklaus Award as the nation’s top college player. And he made the cut as an amateur in the PGA Tour Greenbrier Classic).
9. Mia Persson (Like Thomas, a lesser-known Kentucky athlete, Persson led small-college soccer power Lindsey Wilson to the women’s NAIA national title, was named NAIA National Player of the Year, finished her career as LWC’s all-time leading goal scorer and was its first four-time All-American).
10. Austin Cousino (UK centerfielder was the Wildcats’ most highly-decorated player, named SEC Freshman of the Year and Baseball America First-Team Freshman All-American; helped his team to a school-record number of wins and a pair of #1 rankings, the first in school history.)

As you can see, I like to try to get as many sports represented as I can, at various levels. And it bothers me that I don’t have any Olympians on my list.

The last athlete I eliminated was Wesley Korir. Who? A former cross-country star who competed at Murray State and Louisville, Korir won this year’s Boston Marathon – certainly the high point of American-based distance running.

It’s a difficult process of elimination, although enjoyable as well. It’s fun to re-visit some of the great moments in sports from the year past, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll compare and contrast my list to those of my colleagues.

It’s much, much easier to come up with a list of 10 from the copious number of candidates supplied to the media by H-L columnist and project coordinator Mark Story. Doing it off the top of your head would be quite the challenge, but still, I will ask:

How would you vote?

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th year with the UK TV and radio network and can be heard each Mon.-Fri. at 6 p.m. hosting "Big Blue Insider" on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.


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