There may be no bigger leap in all of professional sports than the jump from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens to the Elite Series.
In baseball, a strike in Triple A is still a strike in "The Show." In football, the game may get a lot faster in the NFL, but the field is still the same size, and a touchdown's still worth six points. In basketball, even mediocre high school players make spectacular dunks these days.
But at the highest level of professional fishing, not only does the level of competition take a quantum leap, but the circuit takes you all over the country — some years from coast to coast and border to border. The playing field is not the same — not just from year to year, but from week to week. And though a bass will always be a bass, when you take your game from the regional level to the national scale, you have to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spots ... oh my.
So the nine Elite rookies for 2013 have their work cut out for them and then some. They range in age from 24 to 40 and in experience from negligible to considerable. After two events — no doubt the most widely diverse events on the entire schedule — their results are naturally a very mixed bag, but the ROY race is definitely "on."
Our ROY leader after two events is the youngest angler in the mix, 24-year-old Josh Bertrand of Gilbert, Ariz. Bertrand struggled to a 67th-place finish at the Sabine River but rebounded nicely to place fourth at Falcon Lake. He's currently 25th in the AOY race, comfortable tucked between Kelly Jordon and Rick Clunn. Before this Elite season, Bertrand had just six Bassmaster Opens under his belt.
Cliff Pirch, 37, is also from Arizona, and he ranks second in the ROY race and 32nd in the AOY standings. A couple of U.S. Open wins and years of experience fishing competitively all across the country make him a "smart money" favorite to win AOY this year. Pirch was 60th at the Sabine, but 18th at Falcon.
Bassmaster Classic favorite and Oklahoma resident Jason Christie, 39, is third in the ROY race and just two spots back of Pirch in the AOY battle. Like Bertrand and Pirch, he struggled at the Sabine (69th), but bounced back strong on Falcon (12th). He won two Opens last year, and his seventh place at the Classic on his home waters have announced his presence with authority on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail.
Those three anglers are looking pretty good so far. If they can maintain their AOY position, all three would likely be bound for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Guntersville — a solid goal for any Elite rookie.
Perhaps because the first two events were so offbeat — a struggle (Sabine) and a slugfest (Falcon) — rookie performance has been all over the place. We're only two tournaments in, but none of the rookies made the first cut both times, and all have at least one finish of 60th or worse!
That's never happened before.
Three of the nine have missed the first cut at both events, including Kevin Hawk, 34, the 2010 Forrest Wood Cup champ who lives in Guntersville and certainly has his eye on a Classic berth. Chad Pipkens, 29, and Chip Porche, 25, are even deeper in the same hole. They need to find a way out and soon. In the history of the Elite Series, only one angler has missed the first three cuts of a season and still qualified for the Classic (Aaron Martens in 2012). If any of these three miss the first cut at Bull Shoals, their best bet to qualify for the 2014 Classic will be to win one of the remaining five events. Making it on points will be all but impossible, and any dream they may have had of winning ROY will be over.
In the middle of the rookie class are James Elam (48th in AOY), Classic standout Hank Cherry (59th) and Kelley Jaye (70th). Cherry and Jaye are two of the elders in this group at 39 and 40, respectively. Elam is 26 and posted the best Elite finish of the trio so far — 17th at the Sabine.
If three of this year's rookies (one-third of the group) can qualify for the 2014 Classic, that would be impressive. The best rookie class in Elite history came in 2011. It was led by Ott DeFoe. That year, four of the 15 rookies made it to the Classic, and since that season, other rookies of that class (Keith Combs, Brandon Palaniuk, Jonathon VanDam and David Walker) have won Elite events.
The least decorated rookie group was probably the class of 2010. Bradley Roy was Rookie of the Year, but finished 40th in AOY and so missed the Classic. It's the only year that no Elite rookie qualified for the championship.
Ready to brush up on your rookie knowledge? Here are a few notes on each of the rookie classes since the Elite Series began.
At 20, this was easily the biggest rookie class in history. It was led by Steve Kennedy, who won ROY and finished second to Mike Iaconelli in the AOY race. Twelve of that year's rookies are no longer with us — in the Elite Series, that is — but Kurt Dove, Jami Fralick, Chris Lane, Jared Lintner, Bill Lowen, Britt Myers and Jeremy Starks are still at it. Only Kennedy, Lintner and Lowen made the Classic as rookies. Lane makes them the only rookie class of the Elite era that has captured a Classic trophy.
Derek Remitz started his Elite career like he was shot out of a cannon. He won his first tournament on Lake Amistad and finished second on the California Delta in his second event. He ended the year as the ROY and ranked 25th in the AOY race. There were 12 rookies in the 2007 class, and three of them qualified for the Classic — Remitz, Matthew Sphar (left the Elites after 2009) and Casey Ashley. James Niggemeyer, Jason Williamson and Marty Robinson were also in that class. The others are long gone.
This was the most skewed ROY race in history. Bobby Lane ran away with it, finishing 15th in AOY points on his way to establishing himself as one of the best in the business. The next best of the 10 other rookies was a dismal 76th. Needless to say, Lane was the only rookie to qualify for the Classic that year. Of the 11 newbies, only Lane and Clark Reehm remain, and only Lane has won at the Elite level.
There were nine rookies in the Class of 2009, and they were led by Billy McCaghren, who finished 27th in AOY points that year. Four of the nine are now out of the Elites and the others have had intermittent success. McCaghren and Matt Herren were the only rookies to the qualify for the Classic that year. Chad Griffin gives them their only Elite win, but his Elite career ended in 2012.
With just seven rookies, this was the smallest class in history ... and the least accomplished, so far. Bradley Roy was ROY but only finished 40th in AOY points, so no rookie made the Classic. Despite their overall lack of accolades (no Elite wins and just two Classic appearances combined), they're all still competing in the Elite Series.
This was almost certainly the strongest rookie class ever. It begins with Ott DeFoe, the ROY and fourth place finisher in the AOY race. And although eight of the 15 rookies that year are out of the Elites now, we still have DeFoe, Keith Combs, Andy Montgomery, Brandon Palaniuk, Jonathon VanDam, David Walker and Nate Wellman. All have been to the Classic and four have won at the Elite level. DeFoe won the first All-Star competition. The Class of 2011 rules!
Obviously, the jury is still out on this group of 10 anglers. Two of them qualified for the Classic via their Elite performance, including Brandon Card, who won ROY with a 22nd place finish in AOY points. Cliff Prince was the other Classic qualifier. Casey Scanlon made it the Classic by winning an Open. Card is not only back to show last year was no fluke, he's our current AOY leader.