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Gabriel's Take: Davis deserved Athlete of Year but others deserved mention

Anthony Davis is the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year, and that is how it should be. He was ranked number one among the 10 slots on my ballot and was rated the same way on a majority of the votes cast by media members from across the Commonwealth.

If you follow this space at all you might recall that I purposely chose to vote strictly for athletes this year, so not a single coach or administrator appeared on my list of finalists.

I would have included Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich, whose school had a big year AND fled the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. But I also would have voted for UK’s Mitch Barnhart, who saw his institution produce four Southeastern Conference champions, a baseball team that reached the top of the rankings twice, four SEC Coaches of the Year and four SEC Players of the Year in their respective sports, not to mention the NCAA basketball champ.

But I realized, had I included people who made their contributions from the sidelines or offices, there would have been precious little space reserved for actual athletes (I did vote for thoroughbred trainer Dale Romans, but only because he had an outrageously great year, with nine Grade I stakes winners. I always try to include a person or equine athlete each year from thoroughbred racing, and no single horse had such a year).

So my ballot was confined strictly to athletes, with Davis atop the list. The others who made the official Top Ten were on my ballot as well, but the ones who didn’t make it were equally as impressive.

The names on my ballot which did not make the list of finalists were:

Romans, Trinity wide receiver James Quick, UK tennis player Eric Quigley, former Kentucky high school golfer Justin Thomas (who won the SEC title), Lindsey Wilson soccer star Mia Persson (NAIA national player of the year) and UK centerfielder Austin Cousino.

They were part of a much, MUCH longer list (110 names) that included coaches, administrators and athletes who did incredible things during phenomenal seasons, reaching goals other people dream about.

My rough draft, before I started hacking away at all but the final 10, included:

John Calipari, whose basketball team had a pretty good season – but he also worked diligently within charity works off the court;

WKU running back Antonio Andrews, who only led all of Division I football in all-purpose yards with the second-highest total of all time;

Clark Burkle, a former Kentucky high school swimmer who placed sixth in the London Olympics in the200-breaststroke;

Dennis Emery, the retiring UK tennis coach who led the Wildcats to an undefeated SEC title;

Gary Henderson, who coached the Wildcats to a record number of victories and a #1 ranking;

Stephanie Klefot, UK volleyball star named SEC Libero of the Year for an unprecedented third straight season;

Lee Kiefer, a Lexington resident who was the top qualifier for the U.S. fencing team and made the quarterfinals in London;

Matthew Mitchell, who coached the Wildcats to the SEC women’s basketball championship;

Nick Nicholson, retiring president of Keeneland, who guided the racetrack through some of its greatest challenges;

Natalie Novasel, the ex-Lexington Catholic star who helped lead Notre Dame to the NCAA women’s basketball final for the second year in a row;

Jeff Parrett, who coached Woodford County to its first KHSAA baseball championship;

Charlie Strong, head coach of the Sugar Bowl champion Louisville Cardinals;

Wesley Korir, who attended both U of L and Murray State, and won the Boston Marathon, the most prestigious foot race in the world.

But perhaps the toughest decision when it came to who made my ballot and who didn’t, was Trent Steelman. And if you can’t place his name, you’re not alone.

Steelman was the starting quarterback at Army – not exactly a football powerhouse anymore. Steelman is a Bowling Green native who wasn’t recruited by the likes of Alabama or Southern Cal (not too terribly much by UK, either).

When he got a scholarship offer, he jumped at the chance to attend West Point. After all, Steelman’s grandfather served with the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II; an uncle served in the first Gulf War; and a great uncle served in WW II, acting as an interpreter during the post-war Nurenberg Trials in Germany.

A two-sport star at Bowling Green (he played baseball as well), Steelman started at quarterback for Army from his freshman year on, unless he was sidelined by injury. He finished his career at West Point as the school’s all-time leader at QB at rushing touchdowns (45) and rushing (3,320 yards).

There’s some talk that he might get some post-graduate attention from the National Football League at wide receiver. But a bigger post-grad job awaits: He’ll be commissioned as a lieutenant into the U.S. Army, where he’ll serve as an officer for four years.

As the award’s project coordinator, Mark Story, pointed out on a recent edition of the Big Blue Insider radio program on WLAP, the title is Kentucky “Sportsman” of the Year, not “Athlete of the Year.” How an athlete conducts him- or herself off the playing field matters as well.

For that reason, Trent Steelman probably deserved more attention in this competition than he received, at least from me.

I’ve voted for this award for the better part of four decades and it’s not often we have the opportunity to cast a ballot for an officer and a gentleman.


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