After ‘amazing year,’ 1 of these 10 will be 2021 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year

·4 min read
Hassan Ammar/AP

My first year voting for the Herald-Leader’s Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award was 1990.

In all that time, I don’t ever recall a year in which the depth of achievements by those with credible ties to the commonwealth made deciding how to vote for the award winner as challenging as picking for 2021 has proven.

I am not the only experienced voter who saw it that way, either.

An amazing year,” wrote Bruce Engel, the former Herald-Leader copy editor who began the Sports Figure of the Year Award in 1981. “I could have done reasonable ballots with all women or all Olympians.”

Veteran Kentucky sportswriter Larry Vaught, who has been voting for the Sports Figure of the Year since the beginning, calls 2021 “a year overloaded with magnificent performances. There were so many deserving winners.”

From Louisville,’s Rick Bozich writes “The decision was tougher than usual this year.”

It was.

Nevertheless, choices have been made and the votes cast. Below, we reveal the 10 finalists for the 2021 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award.

The winner, based on the votes of 159 media members from around the commonwealth, will be announced on around 9 a.m. Tuesday with full coverage in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader.

In alphabetical order, here are the 10 finalists:

Traded in midseason from the Miami Marlins to the Atlanta Braves, ex-Butler High School and University of Louisville baseball standout Adam Duvall had a storybook year.

Individually, the slugging outfielder led the National League in RBI (113), finished second in home runs (38) and won the Gold Glove for his defensive prowess in the outfield.

On the team level, Duvall played a significant role in helping the Braves capture an unexpected World Series championship.

In Lee Kiefer’s third Olympics Games, the Lexington native — and University of Kentucky medical student — went to Tokyo and became the first American woman to win the gold medal as an individual in foil fencing.

Kentucky volleyball setter Madison Lilley produced an epic senior season. Lilley led UK to its first women’s volleyball national championship (in the spring season). She was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player, American Volleyball Coaches Association National Player of the Year and Southeastern Conference Female Athlete of the Year.

In the year in which a battle with COVID-19 and a subsequent stroke took his life on Sept. 28, Johnson Central High School football coach Jim Matney, 62, continued to inspire his team — which reached the Class 4A state finals. Matney was so respected by his peers, he was posthumously voted the 2021 Courier Journal State Coach of the Year.

Three years after her one-and-done season at UK, track star Sydney McLaughlin electrified the Olympics, setting a world record while winning the 400-meter hurdles and running the first leg for a dominant Team USA 4x400 relay team.

Once an unheralded recruit out of Louisville’s St. Xavier High School, Desmond Ridder blossomed into a star college quarterback at Cincinnati — where in 2021 he led the Bearcats to an undefeated regular season and the first College Football Playoffs semifinal berth ever earned by a non-Power Five program.

In Wan’Dale Robinson’s one season as a Kentucky Wildcat wide receiver after transferring home from Nebraska, the Western Hills High School alum rewrote the UK single-season record books for pass receptions (104) and receiving yards (1,334) and was a leading factor in the Wildcats recording their second 10-win season in the past four years.

Capping years of program building, Craig Skinner coached the Kentucky women’s volleyball team to its first NCAA championship during the spring season.

Mark Stoops coached the Kentucky football team to a 10-3 season and a New Year’s Day bowl victory over No. 15 Iowa in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Of UK’s four all-time double-digit win seasons, Stoops is now responsible for two (2018 and 2021).

After transferring to Western Kentucky from Houston Baptist, quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for more yards (5,967) and more passing touchdowns (62) than anyone ever had in the history of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision.

From this list of 10 — only the top of a massively impressive collection of sports achievers last year with ties to our state — will come the 2021 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year.

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