The Lexington Herald-Leader has been presenting the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award since 1981.
In all those years, only once have the voters chosen three high school athletes among the top 10 vote-getters for the award that annually goes to the one judged best in Kentucky sports for the prior year.
In 1994, a high-powered trio of high school football stars — Chris Redman, Tim Couch and Shaun Alexander — were all in the top 10 in Sports Figure voting, finishing fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, behind the winner, University of Kentucky gymnastics star Jenny Hansen.
Now, as a result of votes cast this month by 130 members of the Kentucky sports media, both active and retired, 2023 will become the second year in which three high school athletes rank among the top 10 in voting for the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award.
When the winner is announced Tuesday around 9 a.m. on Kentucky.com, (listed in alphabetical order) Lyon County basketball sharpshooter Travis Perry; ex-North Laurel hoops star Reed Sheppard; and Bell County running back Daniel Thomas will be contending with seven others for the award.
(Sheppard, obviously, is currently a college basketball player at the University of Kentucky. The voting rules for the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award state that voters should base their evaluations on the hoops season that ended in the calendar year that the award covers. In this case, that was the 2022-23 season — when Sheppard was a North Laurel senior.)
Lyon County boys basketball star Travis Perry (11) and former North Laurel star Reed Sheppard are two of the 10 finalists for the 2023 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award. The winner will be revealed Tuesday morning on Kentucky.com around 9 a.m. Herald-Leader file photos
Since the other finalists include the likely NFL MVP; stars of the NBA and Major League Baseball postseasons; All-America college athletes; a national championship-winning college hoops coach; and the football coach who took the University of Louisville to its first appearance in the ACC championship game, some will question why high school athletes belong on the same list.
My answer to that is basic: High school sports are a big deal in Kentucky. In many of the commonwealth’s towns, high school sports provide a galvanizing sense of pride and are often the best local source of both entertainment and social interaction.
In a state where prep athletics matter so much, a high school athlete can conceivably have the biggest impact on sports in the commonwealth some years.
Was this one of those years? You will find out Tuesday.
Below, in alphabetical order, are all 10 finalists for the 2023 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award with a brief description of their achievements:
▪ In his first year as head coach at his college alma mater, Jeff Brohm coached the University of Louisville football team (10-4) to berths in the ACC championship game and the Holiday Bowl.
▪ During his one season as a Kentucky Wildcats running back, Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis set UK single-season records for touchdowns (21) and points (126). Davis was named first-team All-SEC by the Associated Press and second-team All-America by SI.com.
▪ Former East Carter High School softball star Montana Fouts pitched Alabama to the Women’s College World Series for the third time in her illustrious college career. She also won a Pan Am Games gold medal while pitching for Team USA.
▪ Transylvania University women’s basketball coach Juli Fulks led her team to an undefeated season (33-0), including the NCAA Division III national championship. Fulks was named co-National Coach of the Year by DCHoops.
▪ Former U of L quarterback Lamar Jackson led the Baltimore Ravens (13-4) to the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Jackson completed 67.2% of his passes for 3,678 yards with 24 touchdowns versus seven interceptions. He also ran for 821 yards and five TDs.
▪ Ex-Kentucky guard Jamal Murray was one of the stars of the Denver Nuggets’ run to the NBA championship, averaging 21.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 10.0 assists a game in a 4-1 series victory over the Miami Heat in the finals.
▪ As a Lyon County High School junior, Travis Perry passed “King” Kelly Coleman (4,337) as the all-time leading scorer (4,359) in Kentucky boys high school basketball, and also became the state’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers (528).
▪ Brandon Pfaadt, a Trinity High School and Bellarmine University alumnus, helped pitch the Arizona Diamondbacks to a spot in the World Series. In five playoff starts, he gave up only 19 hits and eight runs in 22 innings.
▪ North Laurel star Reed Sheppard ended his high school career with 3,727 career points, 1,050 rebounds, 1,214 assists and 655 steals. In a rare honor for a prep star in the commonwealth, Sheppard was named a McDonald’s All-American. He was also chosen Kentucky Mr. Basketball.
Bell County star running back Daniel Thomas set state records by running for 3,817 yards and scoring 54 touchdowns and 373 points in 2023. Scott Warren
▪ In earning Mr. Football honors, Bell County running back Daniel Thomas set state single-season records for rushing yards (3,817), rushing touchdowns (54) and total points (373).
In the prior 42 years in which the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award has been presented, the only high school athletes to win it have been Clay County basketball star Richie Farmer (1988) and Leslie County football star Tim Couch (1995).
On Tuesday, you will find out if 2023 was the year that produced a third high school winner — or not.
Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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