PARIS, Tenn. — "Winning never gets old," Kevin VanDam said before blast off this morning, on the third day of the SpongeTech Tennessee Triumph.
He should know. His first BASS victory came in 1991 at Georgia's Lake Lanier. His most recent one came at Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake just over a month ago. In between those two, he's had 13 more, including two Bassmaster Classics. He'd like to bring the total to an even 16 this week at Kentucky Lake, which would also mark two victories in a row at this venue. Last year he beat 106 Elite Series competitors to take the top prize here.
One of the anglers VanDam bested here in 2008 was Florida's Bobby Lane, who finished 58th, but right now Lane leads KVD by over 4 pounds with two days left to fish.
The seemingly unflappable Lane admitted that he woke up at 3:30 this morning, well before his alarm went off, but said that was due to excitement, not nerves. VanDam is right behind him and reigning Classic champion Skeet Reese is in third, and Lane said that beating those two mano a mano would make his first BASS victory extra-sweet.
"It's never good having the top two names in the world right behind you," Lane said. "But I don't plan on giving it up. I have my game face on. I'm getting more pumped up as we go on. I'll really start to feel it during the national anthem and then during the ride out."
He faced forward as the anthem played, never glancing back at the wealth of talent that would like nothing more than to pass him today.
VanDam claimed that he had no intention of playing mind games with Lane.
"Bobby's a good guy," he said. "I don't ever want to try to affect the other guys. I just want to control those variables I can control. He's in a tough spot."
Reese also claimed that he wouldn't try to get inside Lane's head.
"Kevin's more likely to try to do it than I am," he said, and then a slow grin settled onto his face. "But the question does put the thought in my mind."
Another Lane, Alabama's Russ (no relation to Bobby), is in fifth place, over 7 pounds out of the lead but only 3 behind VanDam. He said that even if the leaders were to try to burst his confidence they couldn't do it, owing at least partially to his past career as a minor league ball player.
"They ain't getting in my head," he said. "I know all about that because I tried to play the intimidation game as a pitcher. I'd stare down the batters, but you don't want to try to stare these guys down. The only one I'm scared of is Jeff Kriet."
Kriet, far more diminutive than the hulking Russ Lane, is in fourth. It has been well-documented that Kriet craves his first Elite Series win. He's won at the next level down, but the closest he's come at the sport's highest echelon was a second-place finish at the 2007 event on Oklahoma's Grand Lake, where he was outpaced by none other than VanDam.
"I want it pretty bad," Kriet said. "I don't know why I haven't won yet. I'm trying not to even think about it."
Asked whether it was particularly intimidating to have VanDam and Reese as two-thirds of the trio ahead of him, he was brutally honest.
"They're not the two I'd like to see there, but if you want to win one you'd better get used to it," he said.
Fred Roumbanis, who won twice at this level before his 30th birthday, said that the first win is not just a milestone, but also a confidence-builder.
"I had three second-place finishes within 12 months before I won," Roumbanis said. "Once you win one, you can see it's in reach and you lose all of the intimidation factor. You become confident that you know how to win. It sort of sets you free."
While the first win may be freeing, as Roumbanis claimed, none of the competitors claimed that it marked the end of a journey. Instead, they said, it created a new passion, the drive to win again.
Reese, who has won at the open level, twice at the tour level and most recently in the 2009 Bassmaster Classic on the Red River, talked about the addictive qualities of victory.
"Any season is incomplete without a win or an Angler of the Year," he said. "I know I won the Classic, but I want an Elite Series win this year, too. Call me greedy, but my season won't be complete without that."