There's a reason they don't declare a Super Bowl victor at halftime.
It's the same reason they don't determine the Major League pennant winners at the All-Star break.
Keeping the sports metaphors going, the rationale is simple: As Yogi Berra is reported to have said, "It ain't over until it's over."
With the 2010 Elite Series tournament season halfway in the record books, many fishing fans are acting as if the season is all but over. They've handed Skeet Reese the Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year trophy, declared Kevin VanDam's title defense a failure and lauded the comebacks of veterans like Zell Rowland and Guy Eaker.
There are a lot of fish yet to be weighed and a lot can happen in the standings over the course of four events. The best guide to the possibilities is likely to be the 2009 season. While the Elite Series has existed since 2006, it previously consisted of 11 regular season tournaments.
With the season shrunk to eight tournaments, each derby takes on increased significance. It's possible to ascend quickly via a win, but a bomb can lead to a precipitous decline. Last year's field started off with 100 anglers while this year there are 93, so the points are skewed slightly in the case of a bomb, but not enough to make a meaningful difference in most cases.
For purposes of this analysis, we'll treat the 2009 season standings as complete after the eight regular season events, while recognizing that the post-season format allows some shakeup of those point totals. For our purposes, the benchmarks are the 12 cut and the Classic cut (usually 37th) at the end of the main campaign.
While past performance is no guarantee of future results, at this year's halfway point, the race (in terms of numbers, not necessarily names) is eerily similar to last year. To wit:
• Last year after four tournaments, 10 of the 12 anglers in the Top 12 had between 904 and 998 points. This year, after four tournaments, 9 of the 12 anglers in the Top 12 have between 902 and 990 points.
• At the midway point last year, the 12th man had 887 points. This year, the magic number is 881.
• Last year, the Classic cut at midseason was 770 points. This year, it's 768.
Getting to the postseason
Like all sports, in professional fishing the goal of the competitors at the top of the standings sheet is to remain there. Everyone else wants to unseat them. There is a particular emphasis on the Elite Series in remaining in the Top 12 because that qualifies an angler for two extra events and likely provides five to six of them with a reasonable chance of earning the AOY title.
As noted above, last year the top 12 cutoff at midseason was 887 points. At season's end, that number was 1,740, just 34 points less than double that amount, so it would seem likely that this year's break point would be 50 points in either direction of 1,762. That provides a lot of room for mobility.
An angler might do well in the first half, but not the second, or vice versa, or he might be consistent across the board, but in the end, points are points. If you won with 100 pounds at a slugfest, it counts the same as winning with 40 in a tougher event.
Of the 12 anglers at the top of the standings at mid-year in 2009, only six made the postseason. Kevin Short (sixth to 18th), James Niggemeyer (12th to 26th), Matt Herren (seventh to 28th) and Mark Tucker (fourth to tied for 37th) had the greatest falls. In fact, but for a late-season double-qualifier, Tucker would have missed the 2010 Classic.
Of those anglers who were not inside the 12 cut at midseason but progressed to the extra events in Alabama, Kelly Jordon (21st to fourth), Tommy Biffle (20th to eighth), Mike Iaconelli (22nd to 11th) and Gerald Swindle (39th to 12th) jumped the furthest.
Of the current top 12, only Skeet Reese and Cliff Pace were inside the bubble at both midseason and the end of the season last year. Greg Hackney and Aaron Martens were inside the cut at midseason and fell out and Mike Iaconelli was outside and vaulted in.
Making the 2011 Classic
For all but a handful of top anglers, qualifying for the Classic is their primary goal entering any season. For an up-and-comer, it can validate a career. For even the most grizzled veteran, it keeps the sponsors happy. And when they blast off next year in New Orleans, they'll all be starting at zero — you have to be in it to win it.
As articulated above, last year it took 1,481 points and a little luck to make the big show. Jami Fralick, Mark Tucker and Matt Reed all had that number of points, but initially only Fralick qualified due to the tiebreakers in place. Eventually Tucker made it in when James Niggemeyer double-qualified. Reed was the odd man out. Behind Reed were numerous anglers who with a break here or there would have been fishing Lay Lake in February.
The difference between 37th and 50th, bass fishing's "Mendoza Line," was a mere 39 points. That's a difference of less than five points per event. This year the midseason gap between those two positions is 33 points, which means that a good finish, or someone else's poor one, can lead to major movement on the standings sheet.
Last year, six anglers jumped 19 or more places over the course of the final four events to qualify for the Classic: Jeff Kriet rose from 59th to 14th; Byron Velvick went from 46th to 21st; Mike McClelland went from 44th to 22nd; Billy McCaghren went from 55th to 27th; and Russ Lane, apparently desperate to fish another home lake Classic, moved from 50th to 29th.
On the flip side of those feel-good stories are hard luck stories like Fred Roumbanis, Jason Williamson, Bradley Hallman, Pat Golden and Bill Lowen, who each dropped at least 18 places to fall out of the Classic field. Hardest hit was Matt Sphar, who dropped a mind-boggling 38 places, from 26th to 64th, over the course of the final four tournaments.
In between those two emotional extremes are the stories of Matt Reed and Chad Griffin, who rose 25 and 27 positions respectively down the four-tournament home stretch but fell just short of the Classic cut. As noted above, Reed missed out due to a tiebreaker. Griffin came up 17 points shy of the magic number.
Second-half heroes and zeroes
While there are a finite number of points available in the second half of the season, there appears to be a nearly limitless number of permutations in which they can be awarded among the anglers.
The rules for holding one's position or making a move up the ladder are remarkably simple: make sure you get checks, make top 12s and avoid bombs (defined here as 75th place or worse). Because of the weighted points system used on the Elite Series, Sunday appearances are particularly valuable.
The rules for dropping quickly are similarly obvious: don't get checks, certainly don't make top 12s and throw a bomb or two into the mix.
Of the seven anglers — Gerald Swindle, Jeff Kriet, Byron Velvick, Mike McClelland, Kevin Wirth, Billy McCaghren and Russ Lane — who jumped by 19 or more places from midseason until season's end to get into the Classic, all made at least one top 12. Three made the Sunday cut twice in the last four events and Swindle made his late-season surge with three top 12s along with a 38th-place finish.
Russ Lane was the only one of the seven who had a bomb in the season's second half — in his case it was an 83rd to end the season at Oneida. Kriet, who rose an amazing 45 places to easily claim a spot in the Classic, had two top 12s (including a runner-up finish at Oneida), a near miss at 15th and a 37th. That should give some hope to the anglers currently toiling away in the mid- to lower-regions of the scorecard.
The value of a win, in particular, cannot be underestimated. Not only does the $100,000 check pay a lot of expenses, but it provides substantial bonus points (especially for an angler who makes the postseason top 12). Chad Griffin entered last season's final event off the radar in 66th place, but a win at Oneida resulted in him narrowly missing his first Classic appearance. He finished in 42nd overall.
Matt Herren and Mark Tucker fell 21 and 33 places, respectively, over the latter half of the 2009 season, both still qualifying for the Classic but without much room to spare. They each had just one check in the last four events and both suffered two bombs — Herren had an 83rd and a 76th. Tucker's descent was catalyzed by a 96th and an 84th. At least they still made it to Birmingham.
Brad Hallman, Pat Golden and Bill Lowen each had two checks in the last four events but couldn't overcome their bombs: Hallman had an 81st and an 87th; Golden had a 95th; and poor Lowen's self-reported infraction at Oneida resulted in a 98th-place finish, which moved him significantly in the wrong direction (18 places down as the result of one tournament).
Sphar was the only one of the group who dropped substantially to miss the Classic to make a top 12 in the second half of the season. He finished fourth at Oneida, but even the 285 points he earned there weren't enough to overcome the 88th- and 96th-place finishes he'd suffered in the prior two events.
What does this mean for Skeet?
Perhaps stung by the fact that he concluded the 2009 regular season 10 points ahead of VanDam, only to see his lead slip away in Alabama, Reese has been on an absolute tear this year. Not only has he made four consecutive Sunday cuts to start the season, but he hasn't finished lower than fifth. Additionally, he has a win and has led the field at day's end at multiple events, further padding his point totals.
Skeet's midseason total of 1,170 points is 107 more than then-leader KVD had at this point last year. Additionally, his 153-point lead over Greg Hackney is substantially greater than KVD's 2009 midseason lead of 65 points over Skeet. Reese's top 12 cushion is even more substantial — last year KVD was 176 points above James Niggemeyer (12th) after the fourth tournament. This year, Skeet is 289 points above Bill Lowen, currently in 12th.
His Classic safety net is even more substantial. Reese is currently an astounding 402 points ahead of Ish Monroe in 37th. If VanDam, currently in 38th, were to fail to double-qualify (as the reigning Classic champion he gets an automatic spot in the New Orleans Classic) and there were no additional double-qualifiers through the Opens, the field would end at the 36th-place man, currently rookie Bradley Roy, who is still 401 points behind Skeet.
To put that in perspective, Scott Ashmore, currently in last place, has finished 80th, 74th, 90th and 90th to start his rookie campaign and still has 432 points through four tournaments. Keith Poche, who blanked both days he competed on the California Delta and therefore did not earn any points in Stockton, has 555 points at midseason.
Barring some unforeseeable disaster, Skeet can sleepwalk to the Classic.