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My ballot for 2022 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year
Cat Corner: Laid back
There a lot of awards and recognition in sports.
That’s kind of strange, no? Like, why do we spend the entirety of most sports seasons selling the virtues of teamwork and sacrifice only to name one individual “the most valuable” in their field? And why has that trickled into championship games; did Tom Brady really need his ego stroked any further after putting on a sixth Super Bowl ring? Most awards exist merely for conversation fodder, and many are superfluous to the discussion of any single athlete’s legacy. We watch what we do, and have ample record of their performances, especially in 2023. That LeBron James will have four regular-season MVP awards at the end of his career, to me, is an insignificant counting stat; I watched a lot of NBA games and know that he was the best player among his peers for 80-90 percent of his 20-plus year career.
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Here’s where I start to be (more) biased: Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year is a really fun award. You could argue it’s superfluous as any other distinction, and I might agree, but it’s still fun. A lot of that has to do with its nature: in any year, the winner could be any person (or horse) with significant ties to Kentucky.
Mark Story, who runs the KSFY campaign on behalf of the Lexington Herald-Leader, does an incredible job compiling an exhaustive list of candidates. His passion for this state is apparent in his writing, but it’s impossible to ignore come January of each year. Nobody in Kentucky media is as thorough in their awareness of what’s happening in every corner of the commonwealth. My favorite part of receiving the "candidate list" — ballots can include names off that list, as long as they meet the “significant ties to Kentucky” criteria — is combing through it and learning about all the things I missed in the last year. Everyone knows that Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby in longshot fashion, but how many people know that Thomas More, after years of knocking on the door, won its first NAIA championship in women’ basketball, and that Alexah Chrisman and head coach Jeff Hans were key figures in that run to glory?
Like all awards, it sparks healthy discussion in media circles, but because of its all-encompassing nature it seldom devolves into a pointless one. It also reveals the local media’s predispositions to favor University of Kentucky athletes, and male athletes rather than female athletes; a woman has won the award only twice, and not since 1994. The top two vote-getters were men in all but six of the previous 41 rounds of voting. A horse has won more recently than a human woman. I hope that changes this year, but I’m not optimistic.
Before sharing my own ballot, some background on my personal voting principles: I almost never vote for horses (Flightline was incredible to watch in person, but he isn’t a person) and I generally avoid voting for any horse-racing figures at all. When ranking my choices, I tend to favor athletes whose accomplishments in the last year were achieved as a competitor for a Kentucky college or high school; if you’re a professional athlete, you’re going to have to have achieved something really special to get to the top of my list, and the rest of the field has to have been “meh.” I don’t avoid voting for coaches, but I don’t weigh their accomplishments in the same way that I do the people actually playing on the field. I usually include some high school athletes on the ballot, because high school sports are the best and deserve more attention than they receive. This year, I decided that my entire top five would be women, no exceptions, and that my final vote would basically be a throwaway in the name of fandom.
Most of the people on my ballot did not make the list of finalists. The winner will be announced Tuesday morning on Kentucky.com; I encourage you to subscribe, because they do great work that no one else in this state is doing.
With all that said, here’s how I voted, along with the rationale I included for possible publication.
Rhyne Howard: I anticipate that Oscar Tschiebwe will be named 2022 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year. Tschiebwe’s a fine candidate, but Howard is more deserving – and I don’t think that’s debatable. She capped an outstanding career at the University of Kentucky with an SEC championship before getting selected No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft. If she played for the UK men’s basketball team, this wouldn’t be a contest; Howard would win in a landslide. I hope the voters recognize her excellence instead of kowtowing once again to a Y-chromosome Wildcat. What she achieved in Lexington, and continues to achieve at the next level, will be remembered so much longer.
Abby Steiner: If anyone should be named 2022 KSFOY over Howard, it’s Steiner; I struggled where to place them at the top of this ballot and deferred to Howard because “basketball.” We all have our biases. UK’s track-and-field program is the model all others on campus could stand to follow, on and away from the field of competition. It just goes about its business without drama, and its best athletes continuously leave their foes in the dust. Steiner would be a terrific winner.
Ciara O’Shea: The fastest girls’ distance runner in Kentucky high school history deserves all our flowers. O’Shea owned the state for five years and will continue to represent our commonwealth well as she competes for the University of North Carolina.
Claire Chaussee: Volleyball warrants more attention than it receive from the general public, and especially in Kentucky, where we’re fortunate to have three college programs that consistently field high-quality programs. U of L nearly matched UK’s championship run, and Chaussee played a big role in the Cardinals’ march.
Donna Moir: Sacred Heart Academy’s dominance rubs some the wrong way – that’s the bargain you make as a private school competing in a single-class system – but it doesn’t happen without someone like Moir at the helm. She’s overseeing not just what should soon be her second three-peat with the Valkyries’ basketball program, but an entire athletic department full of elite competitors. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a bigger champion for prep athletes than her.
Ty Bryant: He’s emblematic of all the work that Frederick Douglass High School has undertaken to become a perennial football contender. The Broncos have had teams that piled up wilder stats and featured bigger “names” than the 2022 edition, but it became the history-maker with its grit and determination. Bryant led the pack in terms of displaying those intangibles.
Oscar Tschiebwe: The conclusion to his 2021-22 season was not befitting of his play across it; Tschiebwe, and UK basketball fans, desired so much more. The holes in his game have become more apparent since his first go-around with the Wildcats, but he remains an easy young man to celebrate.
Travis Egan: His two-point conversion reception to make Bullitt East a state champion over stalwart Male won’t soon be forgotten. Rare is it that an exciting football game ends in such thrilling fashion.
Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone: It’s reasonable to say that the former UK track star should be at or near the top of this list; she is, pound for pound, probably the best athlete affiliated with our state and most well-known competitor on the ballot. I generally tend to rank higher those sports figures who are still competing within Kentucky on a regular basis, but it’s hard to leave McLaughlin-Levrone off the list entirely.
Donovan Mitchell: GO CAVS!
We’ve all been there. Y’all be good!