Cayuga Lake will set the stage for AOY and Bassmaster Classic berths
After the Delaware River event dominated by Michael Iaconelli, there's just one more regular season tournament in the 2014 Bassmaster Elite Series. It's on Cayuga Lake, Aug. 21-24, and it's pretty critical for most of the Elite field.
You see, at the end of the Cayuga tournament, you need to be ranked in the Top 50 of the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race to be invited to the season finale — the AOY Championship on Bays de Noc out of Michigan. If you're not in the Top 50, your season is over.
Let's group the Elite anglers to this point in the season.
Group 1 (five anglers) is those anglers currently ranked in the Top 5 — Greg Hackney, Aaron Martens, Skeet Reese, Keith Combs and Todd Faircloth. I can foresee absolutely nothing that could keep them out of the 2015 Classic short of spontaneous combustion. They're all but in and can wait by their mailboxes for the invitations.
Group 2 (nine anglers) is those anglers who have already won a 2014 Elite or Open event and can lock up their Classic berth by finishing out the string. In the Elite Series, there are six such anglers — Brett Hite, Chris Lane, Mike McClelland, Jacob Powroznik, Jason Christie and Michael Iaconelli — plus Stephen Browning and Ott DeFoe, who won Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens, and Randy Howell, who is in as the defending Classic champ.
Group 3 (15 anglers) is made up of the anglers ranked 6th to 25th in the AOY standings who are not in Group 2. For these guys to miss the Classic, the wheels would have to completely fall off at Cayuga.
Group 4 (12 anglers) is those anglers ranked 26th to 40th in AOY standings who are not in Group 2. They need to show up at Cayuga, catch a few fish, stay out of the bottom 20 or so and get to the AOY Championship. From there, they'll take their shot at a Classic berth.
Group 5 (31 anglers) is those anglers ranked 41st to 72nd in AOY points who are not in Group 2. These guys have some work to do. The ones higher in the standings need to have a decent finish at Cayuga. The ones lower in the standings can get to the AOY championship with a strong performance.
Group 6 (36 anglers) is those anglers ranked 73rd or lower. They have to win at Cayuga in order to make the Classic. It's hero or zero for them.
Now let's take a closer look at some of the groups and a few specific anglers.
Group 1 (actually the top six anglers in the AOY race) are the ones who have a real shot at winning Angler of the Year in 2014. Just 21 points separate the top angler (Hackney) from sixth place (Jason Christie), and that can be made up in a hurry. The biggest thing that keeps Mark Davis (31 points back) or Gerald Swindle (34 back) out of this group is that there are too many quality anglers to leapfrog over to get to the title.
Could they make up the points to get ahead of a few of them? Absolutely.
Could they get ahead of all of them? Yes, but that would be pretty tough. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Hackney, Martens, Reese, Combs, Faircloth and Christie all bomb, and that's about what it would take for one of them not to win AOY. We'll know a lot more after Cayuga ... obviously.
If you toss out the years where there was a multi-event postseason and dramatically different scoring system in that postseason, the farthest back anyone has ever come with two events to go to win AOY was fourth place. That's where Aaron Martens was a year ago before he closed the gap and passed Edwin Evers, Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam to claim his second AOY.
It's rare for anyone in the Top 25 to fall out of the Top 50 in just one event. These anglers in Group 3 are all but guaranteed a spot in the AOY Championship. In fact, everyone in the Top 28 probably already has enough points to get to Bays de Noc, even if they don't catch a keeper at Cayuga.
Group 5 is most notable because it includes Kevin VanDam (42nd). With the Elites bound for smallmouth country (Cayuga) everyone — including me — is expecting VanDam to have a big tournament and cruise into the AOY Championship. From there, I like his odds to make it to his 25th consecutive Classic.
To call this a down year for KVD is an understatement. The worst AOY finish in his career was 26th in 2004. Since then, he's never been worse than seventh. That's an amazing record, but his string of Top 10 AOY finishes will come to an end this year.
Speaking of amazing, Kevin Short has a shot to qualify for the 2015 Classic despite having missed a tournament (Toledo Bend) after a tornado destroyed his home in Arkansas. It's happened only three times before — all in 2006 when Randy Howell, Alton Jones and Kevin VanDam were disqualified at Santee Cooper, yet all qualified for the subsequent Classic. If Short manages it, it will be a greater feat because there were 11 Elite events in 2006 and only eight (nine if you count the AOY Championship) this year. Fewer tournaments means fewer opportunities to make up for a lost event.
Short is already inside the Top 50 of AOY points, so a solid finish at Cayuga will send him to the AOY Championship. He'll need pretty good performances in both events to lock up a Classic spot.
Thirty-two-time Classic qualifier Rick Clunn is in about the same position. He's currently 52nd in AOY, so he needs to move up at least a couple of spots at Cayuga and close it out at Bays de Noc. I'm rooting for him. The Classic is a better event when he's there.
By the way, the last time neither KVD nor Clunn was in the Classic was 1973.