Breaking out the crystal ball, who will be the 2024 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year?

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In the 43 years in which the Lexington Herald-Leader has presented the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award, only once has there been a back-to-back victor.

The first two years the media-voted award was given, in 1981 and 1982, the winner was venerable Eastern Kentucky University football coach Roy Kidd.

Over the 41 subsequent years, there has been no Kentucky Sports Figure “repeat.”

Travis Perry might have a chance to change that in 2024.

The Lyon County High School boys basketball sharpshooter was revealed last week as the 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year. Perry won on the strength of his having broken — as a high school junior — the all-time Kentucky boys basketball scoring mark previously held by the iconic “King” Kelly Coleman.

The 2023 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year, Lyon County boys basketball star Travis Perry (11) will in 2024 be seeking to become only the second person to win the award in back-to-back years.
The 2023 Lexington Herald-Leader Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year, Lyon County boys basketball star Travis Perry (11) will in 2024 be seeking to become only the second person to win the award in back-to-back years.

This winter, during Perry’s high school senior season, the Lyon County star has already become the first boys basketball player in our state’s history to go over 5,000 career points.

If he were to lead Lyon County, a school with a grades 9-12 enrollment of some 300, to the Boys’ Sweet 16 championship, it might be a new accomplishment of such magnitude that it could allow Perry to end the “Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year” repeat drought.

For fun, let’s get out the crystal ball and project who the leading contenders to be the 2024 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year might be:

12. An NBA player from UK. With seven former Kentucky Wildcats — Bam Adebayo, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Tyrese Maxey, Julius Randle and Karl-Anthony Towns — all named to the NBA All-Star Game, it is shaping up as a banner year for ex-Cats in professional hoops.

What the NBA stars are up against in Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting, however, is that a professional athlete who did not grow up in the state of Kentucky has never been elected the winner — and none of the former UK players in the NBA All-Star Game grew up in the commonwealth.

11. Anna DeBeer. A homegrown (Assumption High School) Louisville Cardinals volleyball star, DeBeer has become the face of a U of L program that has advanced to three NCAA Tournament Elite Eights and two Final Fours in the past three seasons. The outside hitter is returning for a super-senior season in 2024.

10. Tyler Shough. The former Oregon and Texas Tech quarterback figures to put up big numbers running Jeff Brohm’s offense for Louisville in 2024.

9. Walker Buehler. A pro athlete has not been named the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year since PGA Tour star Justin Thomas in 2017. If Buehler, the Henry Clay High School alum and Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher, makes a successful return from his second Tommy John surgery and helps pitch the Dodgers to postseason success, he could be the next.

8. ZaKiyah Johnson. The Sacred Heart Academy star, only a junior in 2023-24, has already been named state tournament MVP and Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year twice. With a very real chance of becoming the best girls hooper ever produced in the commonwealth, might Johnson also become the first girls basketball player to win the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year Award?

7. Brock Vandagriff. Lavishly hyped as a high school recruit, the former Georgia Bulldogs backup quarterback is expected to be Kentucky’s starting QB in 2024. If he can lead Mark Stoops’ Wildcats to success in the expanded SEC, Vandagriff could vault himself into the Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year mix.

6. Antonio Reeves. The understated Kentucky men’s basketball star is using his super-senior campaign to perform at an All-America level for John Calipari’s Wildcats.

5. Jeff Brohm. In his first season coaching his alma mater, Brohm led Louisville (10-4) to double-digit wins and a berth in the ACC championship game. To “top” his debut season, Brohm likely needs to win the ACC — a heavy lift.

4. Juli Fulks. After coaching Transylvania women’s basketball to an undefeated NCAA Division III national title in 2023, Fulks finished third in Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting. If the Pioneers (20-0 as of this writing) repeat as undefeated national champions, does that move Fulks to the top spot in the 2024 Sports Figure race?

3. Travis Perry. (see above).

2. Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone/Abby Steiner. It is a Summer Olympics year in 2024, which means that the two former UK women’s track stars — if both fully recover from injuries (a knee for the former, bone spurs for the latter) that derailed their 2023 seasons — could be set up for big moments on an international stage.

To win the Kenutucky Sports Figure of the Year, both McLaughlin-Levrone (a New Jersey product) and Steiner (Ohio) would have to overcome being professional athletes who are not natives of the commonwealth.

1. Reed Sheppard. The former North Laurel High School boys basketball star finished second in 2023 Kentucky Sports Figure of the Year voting. In the midst of a stellar freshman campaign for UK, Sheppard could move up a spot in 2024, especially if he plays well as Kentucky makes some noise in March Madness.

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