With just one event to go in the 2013 Elite Series season, the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race is no longer a marathon. It's a sprint.
And just as you typically have dozens to thousands of runners in any marathon, sprints usually have just a few competitors. It's the same with the AOY race at this point.
What started with 100 anglers all chasing a dream, is now down to just eight — eight fishermen with a mathematical shot to win fishing's most prestigious title. Realistically, though, the number is actually much smaller. I'd put it at three.
Here are the eight — the top anglers in the AOY race through seven of eight events — and their point totals:
1. Edwin Evers - 594
2. Aaron Martens - 564
3. Kevin VanDam - 555
4. Bobby Lane - 535
5. Chris Zaldain - 521
6. Keith Combs - 518
7. Alton Jones - 502
8. John Crews - 501
While all eight have a mathematical shot at AOY, only Evers, Martens and VanDam have anything like a real chance to win the title. The rest need too many things to happen to get there. Think NFL playoffs going into the final weekend. John Crews is the Washington Redskins. He needs to win while the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants all lose and the Dolphins and Patriots end their season in a scoreless tie while neither quarterback throws a single pass ... and the stadium lights go out and they play under a full moon.
So for, Lane, Zaldain, Combs, Jones and Crews, 2013 has been a very good year, but it's time to focus on staying in the top eight rather than moving up. If they can maintain, they'll qualify for Toyota All-Star Week in September. All are a lead-pipe cinch to qualify for the 2014 Classic, even if they don't catch a fish in the final event. Combs is in by virtue of his Falcon win. The rest are in on points.
And Evers is in the driver's seat for AOY. It's not my favorite sports cliché, but he "controls his own destiny." As long as he finishes in the top 30, no one can catch him and he'll claim his first AOY title.
He's had a remarkable year, too. Not only did he win an event (on the Alabama River), but he's never finished worse than 30th all year long. How special is that?
Well, the only angler ever to do it before (in the Elite era — 2006-13) was Skeet Reese in 2009 (his worst finish was 29th) ... and he didn't win AOY! Reese stumbled in the postseason and Kevin VanDam was there to pick up the crown.
Evers' average finish this year has been 15th. You don't need me to tell you that's really, really good. Last year, Brent Chapman had an average finish of 17th place. If your average is in the top 20, you're going to be making a run at AOY.
Aaron Martens' year has been nearly as impressive. After a dismal start at the Sabine River (he was 85th), Martens has been the hottest angler on the planet. He righted the ship at Falcon Lake (24th), got back on his game at Bull Shoals (15th) and has been unstoppable since then, posting four straight finishes in the top eight, including a pair of second places at West Point and the Mississippi River. If Martens had any kind of catch at the Sabine, he and Evers would be in a dogfight for AOY heading into the finale.
KVD is 10 points back of Martens and 39 points behind Evers. He's a threat for two reasons. First, 39 points back is not nearly out of it, though it's a lot to make up in one tournament. Second, he's Kevin VanDam, and that means he's not out of it until he's been mathematically eliminated ... and maybe not even then.
VanDam wants the title as much as anyone, even though he already has seven of them. He's the ultimate competitor and is on a streak of 27 straight in-the-money finishes (easily one of the great accomplishments in the history of professional bass fishing). If it was anyone else, we'd be marveling at how well he's fishing, but since it's VanDam we're wondering what's wrong. After all, he's only made one final round (top 12) in the past two seasons. That's very un-KVD-like, and it's definitely cost him in this race.
So how likely is it that Evers will lock things up at Lake St. Clair and become the 21st angler to win the AOY title?
I'd put it at extremely likely. Evers has been here before, and certainly knows what it takes to earn the title. He also knows that he doesn't have to win the tournament to win AOY. A solid performance will do it, and that's what I'm expecting.
Leave it to the chasers to make some Herculean effort or tremendously long run that could backfire. After all, they're the ones with nothing to lose.
St. Clair offers plenty of those kinds of gambles, too. There's the chance to run way north to the St. Clair River, even farther north to Lake Huron, to the south and the Detroit River or even farther south to Lake Erie. It's a good bet that many of the anglers will be making big runs beginning Thursday, and a pretty fair bet that one of them will win doing it, but it's a gamble that could also cost you if the wind or weather turns rough and you can't get to your fish on one or more days.
The last time an AOY leader going into the final event didn't win it all was 2008. That's when Todd Faircloth led Kevin VanDam heading into the finale on Oneida Lake. Faircloth finished 93rd and opened the door for KVD, who finished a respectable, but hardly noteworthy 38th. Every other AOY leader in the Elite era has closed things out in the finale, not counting the two years where there was a postseason, of course.