The top of the field of candidates in the 2017 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting might have been the strongest in the 37-year history of the award.
Louisville Cardinals baseball star Brendan McKay swept every major national player of the year award in his sport and led his team to the College World Series.
That only got him third.
U of L quarterback Lamar Jackson put up a statistically-better season in 2017 than the year before — when he won the Heisman Trophy.
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That only got him second.
Justin Thomas became only the third Kentuckian to ever win a PGA Tour major by claiming the PGA Championship. The Goshen (Oldham County) product also captured the FedEx Cup for winning the PGA Tour season points, was PGA Tour Player of the Year and came up huge to help the United States win the Presidents Cup.
That’s what it took to win the 2017 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award.
In the realm of Kentucky sports accomplishments, 2018 has a ridiculously tough act to follow.
Eleven months out, lets get the crystal ball out and speculate on 10 who could win the 2018 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award:
10.) Justin Thomas. As Lamar Jackson found out in trying to replicate his victory in the 2016 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting, repeating is hard. Only iconic Eastern Kentucky football coach Roy Kidd, in 1981 and ’82, has ever won the award in back-to-back years. For Thomas to win again, he would likely have to top his 2017 by winning two majors in 2018. That’s a tall task.
9.) Chris Holtmann. In his first season as Ohio State men’s basketball coach, the ex-Jessamine County Colts basketball standout is the leading candidate to be National Coach of the Year. The Buckeyes were picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten; they were 21-5 and leading the Big Ten (12-1) going into Saturday’s game against Iowa. We shall see if Holtmann and OSU can keep the magic carpet afloat through March Madness?
8). Donovan Mitchell. The ex-U of L guard is enjoying a banner rookie season for the Utah Jazz. The problem for Mitchell in the context of Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting is that winning NBA Rookie of the Year has tended to get one in the top 10 — but not to number one.
7.) Dwane Casey. With the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference seemingly in flux, the former Kentucky Wildcats guard and assistant coach looks to have a viable opportunity to coach the Toronto Raptors to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Could that be enough to make Casey the first professional sports head coach ever named Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year?
6). Teddy Bridgewater. If the ex-Louisville Cardinals quarterback star can complete his return from a devastating knee injury two years ago by again becoming a starting NFL quarterback — be it with the Minnesota Vikings or someone else — it would be one of the feel-good stories in American sports in 2018.
5.) Sydney McLaughlin. As a Kentucky Wildcats freshman, the teen Olympian could emerge as a strong presence in Sports Figure of the Year voting if she can lead a talented UK women’s track and field roster to what would be the Wildcats first-ever NCAA team championship.
4). Asia Durr. If Louisville (24-1) were to win the 2018 women’s basketball NCAA championship, could the ubertalented U of L junior guard finish one spot higher in Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting than ex-Cardinals star Angel McCoughtry (second) did in 2009?
3). Nick Mingione. The popular UK baseball coach finished fifth in 2017 Sports Figure of the Year voting off his stellar debut season. Should Mingione lead the Wildcats to their first trip ever to the College World Series in 2018 as a second act, he might become the first college baseball coach ever voted Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.
2). Jeff Walz. If the Louisville head man becomes the first coach in state history to win a women’s basketball NCAA championship, that could be a compelling case to take to Sports Figure voters.
1). Benny Snell. As a junior, the Kentucky running back needs to run for 1,412 yards — 117.7 yards per game in a 12-game season — in 2018 to pass Sonny Collins (3,835 yards) as UK’s all-time leading rusher.
If the Westerville, Ohio, product can do that while also leading the Wildcats to a third straight bowl game, he could join Tim Couch (1997) and James Whalen Jr. (1999) as the only Cats football players to win the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award.