AOY race: Lee in position to be the thief

Back in 2016, I was covering the Bassmaster Elite Series event on Cayuga Lake when everyone seemed to believe a young up-and-comer named Jordan Lee was a lock to win.

Lee, who had been labeled by many as “the next Kevin VanDam,” had grabbed the lead after Day 2 with remarkable consistency, and the only reason I didn’t share the opinion he was a lock was that several big-name anglers were lurking just behind him in the standings.

One was the actual Kevin VanDam.

In the end, VanDam reinforced his reputation as the greatest closer in the history of the sport, slipping past Lee on Championship Sunday to secure the win.

Fast forward eight years, and we have a flipped script that is just dripping with the kind of delicious irony sports fans adore.

After five tournaments, 19-year-old prodigy Trey McKinney — the latest guy to wear the incredibly unfair label of “the next Kevin VanDam” — is leading the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. He’s finished 12th, first, sixth, 17th and sixth en route to his lead, and not surprisingly, some people believe he’s going to cruise to the title.

(If you’ve been reading closely, you knew there was going to be a “But.”)

But, McKinney has some fantastic anglers nipping at his heels in the race — and none is closer to running him down and catching him than Lee. McKinney has compiled 478 points, while Lee has 448.

Lee, by the way, is no longer that 2016 kid who had his first win ripped away from him at Cayuga by a legend. Now, he’s the legend — literally. He rejoined the Bassmaster Elite Series this year on a Legend’s Exemption that he earned by being a two-time winner of the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors.

So, imagine the spot McKinney is in right now. He’s still just a kid, but he has the eyes of the fishing world on him. He’s in the lead for one of the two biggest titles in professional bass fishing, and he’s trying to fend off a guy who’s won more than $1 million with B.A.S.S. as the trail swings to … Alabama.

The next two events — the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake (June 13-16) and the TNT Fireworks Bassmaster Elite at Smith Lake (June 27-30) — will both be held in Lee’s native state of Alabama, roughly an hour from his home in Cullman.

Welcome to the big leagues, Trey McKinney.

Now, there’s been absolutely no evidence that McKinney isn’t up for the challenge. He’s caught fish in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and South Carolina so far, and he’s handled pressure better than some anglers three times his age.

But walking into the lion’s den, knowing the lion is home, rested and hungry, will be the ultimate test.

After that event on Cayuga back in 2016, VanDam said, “I might have stolen one this week, but I’ve been on the other side of that too. It all tends to balance out in the end.”

So, let the stretch run begin.

Let’s see if the 2016 Cayuga event was a microcosm of the 2024 AOY race, with a slight change to the cast of characters. Let’s see if McKinney gets his pocket picked or fends off the master jewel thieves creeping around his front porch.

Whatever happens, it’s bound to be must-see TV.