FLW Championship presents some compelling matchups - Major League Fishing

FLW Championship presents some compelling matchups

July 2, 2002 • Jeff Schroeder • Archives

New bracket format has pros sparring head-to-head for the first time – and for $260,000

Following the conclusion of the Forrest Wood Open, the FLW Tour season standings were finalized and the brackets set for the FLW Championship. While Jay Yelas’ come-from-behind run to win Angler of the Year over Kevin VanDam provided high drama at Lake Champlain, the head-to-head matchups showcased at the 2002 championship on Cross Lake should prove to be equally – if not even more – exciting for bass-fishing fans.

The top 48 pros in the standings will fish in the championship. The qualifying field will feature some of the biggest names in the business as well as some newcomers to championship competition. There are the young guns, the older legends and the sons of legends. They come from the East, West, North and South, from overseas, and even, in the case of Gerald Swindle, from another planet.

In short, it’s the best and brightest from the 2002 Wal-Mart FLW Tour battling head-to-head on a little impoundment outside of Shreveport, La., all chasing after that $260,000 carrot. It’s going to be quite a show. Here’s a preliminary look at some of the key matchups in the opening round:

The big guns

Based on their numbers from the regular season, you might think the top five seeds would have a cakewalk through the opening round. But not so fast. While each is facing the last five seeds to qualify, their opponents are no sacrificial lambs. It takes a certain kind of angler just to make the championship, whether in first or 48th place, and no matchup – I repeat, none – is a sure thing for anybody.

Jay Yelas (#1 seed) vs. Harmon Davis (48). Yelas earned Angler-of-the-Year honors and the top seed by virtue of his string of solid finishes on tour in 2002, but Davis would be worthy of the rookie-of-the-year award if it existed. He won the points title in the EverStart Central Division in 2001 and his skills translated well at the FLW level in 2002. The only true rookie to make the championship, he is capable of catching a big five-bass limit on any given day. Yelas will have his hands full against Davis.

Kevin VanDam (2) vs. Marty Stone (47). VanDam’s strengths are evident: He can compete on any body of water and hasn’t finished worse than 44th place all season – much less in his entire FLW career. Stone, on the other hand, hasn’t finished better than 42nd place in 2002 and hasn’t made it out of the opening round all year. Stone’s chances might look pretty grim since VanDam is VanDam and he’s supposed to win. But the Big V was supposed to win Angler of the Year, too, and that didn’t happen. Also, for what it’s worth, Stone has FLW Championship experience – three years – while VanDam has none (he qualified in 2001, but the post-Sept. 11 event was cancelled). But for Stone to have a chance, he’ll need to regain his competitive form from the 1997-2000 seasons when he was regularly in contention.

Dean Rojas (3) vs. Takahiro Omori (46). This showdown is for bragging rights on Team Yamaha, for whom both Rojas and Omori fish. While Rojas has had the better overall season, it is Omori who brings an FLW winner’s trophy to the table. Omori, originally from Japan, won at Lake Martin in 2001 while Rojas just missed his first win – by an agonizing 1 ounce – at Lake Champlain. This one might be too close to call, but consider this: Cross Lake is just down the road from Omori’s adopted home in Emory, Texas, so he could have the edge. Then again, with three top-20 finishes in the last three tournaments, Rojas is on fire right now.

Clark Wendlandt (4) vs. Alvin Shaw (45). This is a collision of Kellogg’s pros. The edge has to go to Wendlandt, who’s a strong threat to win any tourney. Wendlandt made three cuts past the opening round this season and just missed a fourth at Champlain while Shaw made just one cut in 2002. Even at the one tourney where they both bonked, Lake Ouachita, Wendlandt edged out Shaw, who finished 123rd, in 113th place.

Sam Newby (5) vs. Scott Martin (44). Two former FLW champions here, Newby being the most recently crowned, at Lake Champlain. Martin’s win came at the Pascagoula River in 2000 and he followed up with a dismal 2001 season. He had flashes of mediocrity in 2002, as well, with a couple finishes past 100th place, but he also top-fived twice to push himself into the championship. Newby, in his first full FLW season, has been much more consistent, finishing every tourney except one in the top 30 (including the victory at Champlain). Newby will be carrying momentum and confidence from Champlain into Cross Lake, but so will Martin, who finished fourth in New York just over 2 pounds behind Newby.

Clash of the titans

As to be expected, a few Hall-of-Fame-caliber pros are players in the championship’s head-to-head game. Some, by a quirk in the numbers, will be facing each other in the opening round.

Rick Clunn (11) vs. Paul Elias (38). This year, Clunn may have missed qualifying for his 29th-consecutive Bassmaster Classic (he’s won it four times), but he’s on track to begin another streak if things keep going this way for him on the FLW Tour. He hasn’t missed an FLW Championship since he began competing in 1997. He also has three regular-season FLW wins and a record 16 top-10 finishes under his belt. Elias is also no stranger to championship competition either. He has three FLW top-10s and won the Classic in 1982.

Tom Mann Jr. (14) vs. Larry Nixon (35). Mann, the legend of Georgia’s Lake Lanier, is squaring off against the Arkansas General, Nixon. Mann’s known for his prowess with spotted bass while Nixon – a past Classic winner, two-time FLW champion (including this year at Lake Wheeler) and five-time championship qualifier – is keen on smallmouth bass. They’ll both be fishing for largemouth at Cross Lake.

Note: Another quirk in the numbers has all four of these fishing heavyweights competing in the same bracket so that the two winners will face each other in the semifinal round.

The legacies

With the legends comes their kin. Scott Martin is the son of TV bass legend Roland Martin. Another pair of pros with some strong fishing family ties will be facing each other:

Dion Hibdon (19) vs. Keith Williams (30). Dion is the son of finesse-fishing pioneer Guido Hibdon and Keith is the son of Arkansas pro Jerry Williams, a five-time FLW finalist. Both Dion and Keith are quickly establishing their own legacies on tour: Keith claimed his first top-five finish this season at Lake Wheeler and Dion is the defending FLW Championship winner. Hibdon should feel comfortable at this year’s championship as well because he won it in 2000 on the Red River – just a stone’s throw from Cross Lake.

Note: Guido Hibdon also qualified for the championship, seeded 22nd, and could face Dion if both of them make the final round.

Team competitions

Under normal circumstances, pros from the same sponsor team often collaborate to share fishing information and generally root for each other during tournaments. But in the championship, some sponsor teammates must compete directly against each other to advance. We already mentioned the Rojas-Omori (Team Yamaha) and Wendlandt-Shaw (Team Kellogg’s) matchups. Here’s one more:

Joel Richardson (20) vs. Wes Thomas (29). In this Team Fujifilm battle, Richardson already has bragging rights because he won the FLW event at Lake Okeechobee in 1999 and placed 14th this year at Champlain. But Thomas is having his best year yet on tour and will challenge his fellow green-shirt for supremacy in Louisiana.

Note: Team Yamaha and Team Fujifilm tied for most representatives in the championship. They each have four pros competing. Kellogg’s is next with three, then Coleman with two. Castrol, Conseco, Land O’Lakes and Stanley each have one.

Quirky matchups

Here are a few matchups that, for lack of a better descriptive, just seem especially interesting:

David Dudley (7) vs. Gerald Swindle (42). Dudley is having his best year ever – and most lucrative – in big-time fishing competition. He’s hit the top 25 four times and top 10 twice in 2002 FLW competition. That’s not to mention his $700,000 win at the Ranger M1 in February, which he won at just 27 years old. A fellow young gun, Swindle has only made it past the opening round once this year, but he won the Wal-Mart Open in 1998 and is one wily competitor with a number of final-round appearances to his credit. With his quick tongue and propensity for making the cut, Swindle is always good for a humorous sound bite, if not a nice stringer of bass.

Aaron Martens (16) vs. Rob Kilby (33). Martens made the championship even though he skipped a tournament (Lake Ouachita) this year, which is a testament to his fishing ability. He finished no worse than 30th place in the five events he fished and likely could have been Angler of the Year if he’d competed at Ouachita. Kilby can be streaky, but he’s come on strong lately with an 11th and 13th place in the last two FLW events. Still, he has his work cut out for him against Martens, who has quickly become one of the best pros on tour and should be one of the pre-tournament favorites.

Alton Jones (13) vs. Craig Powers (36). Two pros of roughly the same age and roughly the same FLW tournament records. Powers has six top-10s. Jones has five top-20s despite not fishing the tour in 2000 and 2001. Jones has had the better 2002 season, but Powers has won before – right nearby at the Red River in 2001. This is a fine showdown.

Notable no-shows

There are a few pros who are notable for their absence from the 2002 FLW Championship. These are guys who have been there before and missed out this year, or have made a name for themselves in bass fishing but couldn’t quite push their names above 48th place on the 2002 FLW standings list. I’m not knocking them; it’s just that they’ll be missed.

Koby Kreiger (49th in the year-end standings). Missed the championship by an agonizing five points. Kreiger had solid seasons in 2000 and 2001, finishing ninth and seventh place in the standings, respectively, and seemed to be on his way up. But his performance fell off early this season and he had to scramble in the second half just to make 49th place.
David Walker (53). The 1999 FLW Angler of the Year just hasn’t really clicked the last two seasons. He made five consecutive championships from 1996 through 2000, but hasn’t qualified since.
Randy Howell (66). Like Walker, Howell made five consecutive championships (1997-2001), and is ending that streak in 2002 with just one tournament finish better than 30th place in the regular season.
Mickey Bruce (71). Former tour winner finished the season ranked second in the standings last year. Coincidentally, he also ranked 71st at the end of the 2000 season and missed that year’s championship.
Davy Hite (73). Won the championship in 1998.
Johnny McCombs (89). Ranked in the top 20 the last three seasons. Didn’t crack the top 30 the entire 2002 season.
Darrel Robertson (90). Won the championship in 1999 and later joined FLW Outdoors’ exclusive million-dollar club when he subsequently won $600,000 at the inaugural Ranger M1 the same year.
Basil Bacon (78) and J.T. Kenney (94). The only FLW Tour winners from the 2002 season who failed to qualify for the championship. Bacon, a tour veteran with regular appearances in the FLW final round, collected his first victory at Old Hickory Lake in May. Kenney, who won at Lake Okeechobee in January, is a tour rookie whose next best finish in 2002 was 86th place.


Complete 2002 FLW Championship brackets
Revamped FLW Championship format presents new challenges
2002 FLW Championship pairings an exercise in bracketology