Part of what makes the Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year award intriguing is how hard it is to predict in advance where excellence will emerge.
On Jan. 1, 2018, would anyone have tabbed Josh Allen as a leading candidate to become the 38th Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year?
Yet, after a brilliant senior season, the UK linebacker was elected the 2018 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year in a vote of state media members in a relatively close race with Kentucky football teammate Benny Snell.
In a mere 11 months, it will again be time to choose the one who represents the best in Kentucky sports. Here are 12 who could emerge as top contenders to win the 2019 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.
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12. Lynn Bowden. As a sophomore in 2018, the Kentucky slot receiver proved a star in the making. With Allen and Snell gone to the NFL, Bowden will enter 2019 as the face of UK football.
11. Billy Hicks. A high school coach has never won Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year. Already in 2019, Scott County’s Hicks has become the first boys’ basketball coach in state history to exceed 1,000-career wins. If his 23-1 team also wins the coach’s third state championship, Hicks could have a shot.
10. A world-record setter. Though 2019 is not an Olympics year, ex-UK hurdles stars Kendra Harrison and Sydney McLaughlin and current Louisville swimming star Mallory Comerford and ex-Cardinals swim star Kelsi Worrell Dahlia could shatter a world record and, in doing so, become viable Sports Figure contenders.
9. Scott Davenport. In 2011, when Davenport coached Bellarmine to the NCAA Division II men’s basketball national title, he finished third in Sports Figure voting. Currently, Davenport’s Knights (18-0) look like a strong contender to again win the national title.
8. John Calipari. The UK men’s basketball coach has won the Sports Figure voting once (2009), been second three times (2011, 2012 and 2015) and third twice (2010 and 2014). If Calipari’s improving 2018-19 Cats were to win the NCAA title, their coach would be in a strong position to become a multiple Sports Figure winner.
7. Lamar Jackson. The ex-Louisville star quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens to a 6-1 mark and a berth in the NFL playoffs in 2018. Yet there are many “critics” who have staked their reputations on the fact the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner “is not an NFL quarterback.” If Jackson continues to prove those people wrong in 2019, it could propel him to his second Sports Figure Award (2016).
6. Justin Thomas. The PGA Tour star and St. X alumnus is eminently capable of winning his second career major — or more — in 2019, which would automatically have the 2017 Sports Figure winner back in contention.
5. Walker Buehler. If the Henry Clay product can avoid the sophomore jinx after a stellar rookie season as a Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher, he could become the first major-league baseball player to win Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year since Brandon Webb in 2006.
4. Rondale Moore. The ex-Trinity High school star electrified college football as a Purdue freshman. A similar season — and greater team success — could thrust the wide-out into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
3. Asia Durr. A women’s college basketball player has never been elected the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year, though Valerie Still (second in 1982) and Angel McCoughtry (second in 2009) came close. If Durr can lead Louisville back to the Final Four — or to its first NCAA championship — she could be the first.
2. Ja Morant. Even the biggest Murray State men’s basketball stars — Cameron Payne (22nd in 2015); Isaiah Canaan (14th in 2012); Popeye Jones (11th in 1990, ‘91 and ‘92) — have had a hard time cracking the Top 10 in Sports Figure voting. However, Morant, the current Murray star, has blown up into a national phenomenon in a way that no prior Murray hoops star ever has.
If the point guard can get the Racers through the OVC Tournament and MSU makes some noise in the NCAA tourney, Morant could follow the same path that Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried traversed in winning the 2011 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award.
1. Chris Mack. The new Louisville men’s basketball coach has defied expectations on the recruiting trail by landing a lavishly praised 2019 class. On the court, Mack’s 2018-19 Cardinals (16-5, 7-1 ACC) are the surprise team of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
For Mack to remain a leading contender for 2019 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year, the Cardinals will have to survive a brutal February schedule and make some noise in March Madness.