Lucas feeling the pressure of AOY

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Thomas Allen

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” — Khalil Gibran

HIAWASSEE, Ga. — Justin Lucas feels like one big, sleep-deprived scar right now. Every day has meant a new scar since Lucas emerged from the Elite Series tournament at the St. Lawrence River as the leader in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. That was on August 26th. He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since.

The scars are caused by the inexplicable pressure an AOY leader feels going into the season’s final event.

“I just want that trophy,” Lucas said after Thursday’s weigh-in. “That’s all I care about. I don’t give a damn about anything else right now.”

“Not even your wife and child?” asked a reporter, trying to lighten the mood.

“I love her and I love my kid,” Lucas replied. “But I told Bree to just bear with me two more days and it will be alright after this. It’s not fun right now. She knows that. I feel for her. I told her that I can’t explain the feeling I have right now. It’s weird.”

When BreeAnna was told her husband’s answer to that question, she laughed and said, “That doesn’t surprise me. He’s been pretty intense.”

Justin and BreeAnna will celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary on October 27th. Their son, Cooper, will celebrate his first birthday on Nov. 22nd. In all likelihood, Justin will have the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year trophy at their Guntersville, Ala., home next week. After two days at Lake Chatuge, Lucas opened a commanding lead over his longtime friend Josh Bertrand, who came into this event only nine AOY points behind Lucas. He was the only angler who could deprive Lucas of the crown this week.

Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year is the most coveted title in professional bass fishing. Only 22 men have earned that title in the 50 years of B.A.S.S. history. (Roland Martin won it nine times; Kevin VanDam seven.) While the Bassmaster Classic champion earns three times the $100,000 payoff for an AOY Championship, it’s the season-long competition against a full field of pros that signals the greatest achievement for the anglers.

As B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon put it Wednesday at the anglers’ meeting, “Somebody is going to go from B.A.S.S. good to B.A.S.S. great this week.”

Justin Lucas is on the verge of B.A.S.S. great, and he’s running on fumes.

“I didn’t sleep worth a crap again last night,” Lucas said Friday. “I got up at 3 o’clock again and started thinking about my game plan. I can’t get back to sleep once I do that. I’m just running on pure adrenalin.”

Said Bree, “He’s been like a kid waiting for Disney World.”

It’s a Disney World trip with a season’s worth of obstacles. Four other anglers were at the top of the AOY standings during the season before Lucas moved to No. 1. Brent Chapman led for three straight tournaments in the middle of the year. Bradley Roy was No. 1 before and after Chapman. But both had late stumbles that took them out of contention. It points to why the anglers so cherish this title – it’s the mark of a near-perfect season, day after day, tournament after tournament.

While never the leader until the St. Lawrence River, Lucas hasn’t been far away. He was second in AOY points after starting with a sixth-place finish at Alabama’s Lake Martin and a 13th at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. Lucas’ stumbles came next when he finished 73rd at Kentucky Lake and 48th at Texas’ Lake Travis. However, that dropped him to only 13th in the AOY standings.

Lucas has been on a roll since: 10th at the Sabine River, 11th on the Missisippi River at La Crosse, Wis., 9th at South Dakota’s Lake Oahe and 2nd at the St. Lawrence River.

Making him appreciate this season even more was the disaster of 2017, when Lucas finished 64th in the AOY standings. The California native was 11th, 2nd and 8th, respectively, in his first three years on the Elite Series. He began 2018 on a mission to prove that 2017 was a fluke, not the beginning of a trend.

Bree has watched the pressure build all season long, and Justin’s intensity increase with it.

“Oh, yeah, especially (Thursday),” she said. “I was glued to ‘Bassmaster LIVE’ all day. I could tell that he wasn’t having fun out there. He was super-serious, not relaxed at all. When he got off the water, I said, ‘Are you okay? Do you need to decompress a little bit?’”

Even though Lucas has done everything he needed to this week to take some of the pressure off, the decompression won’t come until Sunday. Brandon Palaniuk, last year’s AOY champion, knows how it goes.

“The pressure comes from years and years of wanting something so bad and being five fish away from achieving that goal,” Palaniuk said. “It’s the pressure of a whole season and wondering when you’ll ever get that chance again.

“All the pressure builds and builds. When you get that trophy, it’s like somebody hands you the needle to pop the balloon. That’s when it becomes real.”

Then and only then will Justin Lucas get a good night’s sleep again.