Top moments in sports during 2018

Teams captured state titles and local athletes turned in outstanding performances, during a year that brought shining moments and lasting memories.

Here are some of the highlights, from across The Laker/Lutz News coverage area:

USA Women’s Hockey, fans celebrate gold in Wesley Chapel
Just days after celebrating a gold medal win in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the USA women’s ice hockey team returned to where their remarkable journey started — Wesley Chapel.

The U.S. women’s national ice hockey team posed for pictures on Feb. 28 at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel. The team spent more than five months training at the facility and lodging at Saddlebrook Resort. (File)

That’s where the team spent more than five months preparing for the Winter Olympics, training at Florida Hospital Center Ice and lodging at Saddlebrook Resort. It’s also where daily practices, off-ice testing and intra-squad scrimmages were used to determine the 23 players selected in May for the Team USA roster.

The team spent the better part of an hour on the afternoon of Feb. 28 greeting fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs at the Center Ice facility.

The event drew excitement from hockey enthusiasts, such as Wesley Chapel’s Rob Simonelli, who was prideful of the fact the Olympic team trained in his hometown.

“I just was excited that this was their home base. Just following them when they made this their home was kind of cool,” Simonelli said, at the time.

“They’re really friendly, and it’s nice that they decided to come and just kind of say ‘Hey’ to the people,” he added.

The surprise visit was part of a nationwide media blitz that also took them to Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York City.

The week prior, the team defeated Canada in a 3-2 shootout to win gold, ending a 20-year drought for the women’s hockey program.

Florida Hospital Center Ice was picked as Team USA’s training ground over such hockey facilities in Boston, Chicago and other cities — placing a feather in Pasco County’s cap in its quest to become a top-notch sports tourism destination.

The time spent by the Olympic gold medalists in Wesley Chapel led them to later be dubbed by some residents as ‘Pasco’s team.’

The stay in Wesley Chapel likewise proved special for the elite athletes, from top-flight training digs and hospitality, to the warm, sunny weather.

Said defenseman Cayla Barnes, then the youngest member of Team USA at 19 years old: “These facilities were awesome, the staff here was amazing, and they really helped us with everything we needed. It was great to be down here, such nice weather, and really nice to train out here in preparation for the games.”

Added two-time Olympian and forward Kendall Coyne: “Hockey in Florida was new to a lot of us, but I don’t think it took long for us to realize that hockey is serious in Florida.”

Local small-school sprinter wins state title
It’s not often a small-school athlete gets to celebrate on a big stage.

But, that’s what happened to Zephyrhills Christian Academy senior Evan Miller.

He captured the Class 1A boys 100-meter dash title in a blistering 10.75 seconds at the Florida High School Athletic Association Track & Field 2018 Championships, at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Zephyrhills Christian Academy senior Evan Miller won first place in the 1A boys 100-meter dash in 10.75 seconds at the Florida High School Athletic Association Track & Field 2018 Championships.

The senior was also the final leg of the school’s gold-medal winning 4×100-meter relay team that scorched the competition with a 42.10 second mark — joining junior NyJohn Moody, sophomore Tyler Davis and senior Calvin Samuel.

Those marked the only first-place finishes at the state track & field meet among athletes from The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.

It’s also noteworthy, considering Zephyrhills Christian has about 250 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade and was in just its second year offering a boys and girls track & field program.

For Miller, the memorable showing had been a year in the making.

The previous summer, the multi-sport athlete suffered a broken ankle during a 7-on-7 football tournament.

The injury forced Miller, a standout defensive back, to miss several games in the fall as a member of the Zephyrhills Christian varsity football team.

Unable to hit the gridiron, Miller hit the starting blocks instead, as part of his rehabilitation process.

The newfound sport proved to be his true calling.

Miller linked up with well-regarded AAU track coach and personal trainer BB Roberts, who runs the Wesley Chapel-based Speed Starz Track Club, and lists NFL and MLB athletes as training clientele.

Roberts, a former track star in his own right at Wesley Chapel High School and Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College, worked to correct Miller’s running form and technique, among other tips.

The fixtures shaved Miller’s 100-meter personal record from a still-impressive 11.2 to a 10.69 — which he set at the Steinbrenner High Invitational in early April.

Miller is now a freshman sprinter at Division I University of South Carolina, where he’s training under the Olympic pedigree of legendary head coach Curtis Frye.

Academy at the Lakes wins first state softball title
Buoyed by a longtime Division I coach in Diane Stephenson, one of the state’s top arms in Lexi Kilfoyl, and a potent offense averaging nearly seven runs per game, the 2018 Academy at the Lakes varsity softball team lived up to the preseason hype — finishing with a remarkable 26-4 record and winning its first-ever Class 2A state championship.

The state crown was a follow-up to an impressive 20-win season and regional final appearance in 2017.

Academy at the Lakes varsity softball won the FHSAA Class 2A state title on May 22 after defeating Monticello Aucilla Christian 1-0 in 11 innings. The Wildcats finished the season 26-4.

For the Wildcats, the most dramatic moment of the 2018 campaign came in its most important game.

Academy at the Lakes outlasted Monticello Aucilla Christian 1-0 in 11 innings on May 22 at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, in a game that featured a pitcher’s duel through wet, muddy conditions.

Kilfoyl, then a junior, outlasted Aucilla Christian senior and Florida signee Elizabeth Hightower by unleashing a 13-strikeout, fourth-hit shutout.

The softball sensation and Alabama signee also did some work with the bat.

Kilfoyl was responsible for the game-winning single that allowed freshman shortstop Brooke Blankenship to score on a two-out single in the 11th inning — unseating an Aucilla Christian program that had won state crowns two of the last three years.

Forecasting ahead, a state title repeat for the Wildcats  in 2019 certainly seems within reach.

Kilfoyl and Stephenson return, as do much of the key contributors from its state-winning squad.

Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex breaks ground
The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex’s June 7 groundbreaking represented a major step for Pasco County, as it looks to become a premier sports tourism destination in the years ahead.

Expected to open in late 2019, the $44 million, 98,000-square-foot complex is slated to feature eight basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts, a cheer and dance studio, a fitness center, and sports medicine and athletic training offerings.

The $44 million Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex is expected to open in late 2019. The 98,000-square-foot complex will have eight basketball courts, 16 volleyball courts, a cheer and dance studio, a fitness center, and sports medicine and athletic training offerings. Also, besides the indoor gym, the complex will have seven outdoor sports fields, an amphitheater with an event lawn, walking trails, pavilions and a playground.

In addition to its indoor offerings, the complex will have seven outdoor sports fields, an amphitheater with an event lawn, walking trails, pavilions and a playground.

The complex — being built off State Road 54, near The Shops at Wiregrass— will operate on Monday through Thursday as a community-based sports center for youth, adults and seniors, while weekends will be set aside to host tournaments, competitions and other events that will generate hotel stays and tax revenues for the county.

The county will own the facility and share in anticipated profits with RADD Sports, a private company that will operate and manage the sports complex.

Officials say annual economic impact would be about $6.5 million for the new facility. Over 10 years, about $8 million or more in sales and use taxes would be generated, not including tourism taxes from hotel stays, officials say.

The  complex adds to a growing list of premier, state-of-the art sports facilities in east Pasco — and further markets the area as a sports tourism destination primarily for youth and amateur sports.

Other nearby offerings include Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, which opened in early 2017 as the largest hockey complex in the southeastern United States; Saddlebrook Resort & Spa, an upscale resort renowned for world-class golf and tennis training; and, Wesley Chapel District Park, which sits on 144 acres and contains 10 full-size athletic fields, and lighted outdoor tennis courts and basketball courts. Efforts also recently began in a quest to build a premier aquatics facility in Land O’ Lakes, as well as a multimillion dollar tennis complex in Zephyrhills.

Land O’ Lakes High honors ‘Voice of the Gators’
For Land O’ Lakes High School, the 2018 ‘Butter Bowl’ will go down as one of the most historic, as the Gators football team finally cracked an eight-game losing streak to crosstown rival Sunlake High School, with a 35-24 home victory.

Matt Connor, top, and Meaghan Connor of Land O’ Lakes positioned Mike Connor on the sideline area for a dedication of the press box in his name.

The most enduring moment of that Sept. 14 evening, however, happened right before kickoff.

That’s when a special dedication ceremony was held to honor longtime athletics booster Mike Connor. The press box space at John Benedetto Stadium named the Mike Connor Family Press Box.

The dedication drew dozens of friends and family, as well as current and former Gators coaches, who showed their support and appreciation for Connor, who passed away a month later at age 69.

Connor, a volunteer at the school since 1989, was instrumental in building a sustainable athletic and football booster club. His efforts also helped established a yearly scholarship fund for a male and female at the high school.

Connor, too, served as the ‘Voice of the Gators,’ calling the action of every Friday night home game for nearly two decades, and creating catchphrases, such as ‘a gaggle of Gators.’

An area business owner and Land O’ Lakes resident since 1982, Connor operated Taco John’s on the corner of State Road 54 and U.S. 41, as well as Beef O’ Brady’s in Wilderness Lakes. He was also noted for being a key part of the early successes of the Flapjack Festival and, later, in helping to create the Land O’ Lakes Swamp Fest.

Academy at the Lakes wins its second straight football title
Following last year’s historic eight-man state title run, questions swirled about how the Academy at the Lakes football program would handle a newfound target on its back and the loss of several impactful players.

The team responded with aplomb— finishing with a perfect 10-0 record and winning its second straight eight-man state title, downing Miami Citi Christian Academy Fire 36-18 in the Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) championship game on Dec. 8, at Southeastern University in Lakeland.

In contrast to last year’s Wildcats team that relied heavily on do-it-all running back/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez — the  2017 Florida Christian Association of Private and Parochial Schools (FCAPPS) Heisman Trophy winner — the 2018 squad was forced to play together in all phases of the game.

Filled with new faces and inexperience at some positions, the Wildcats proved to be greater than the sum of its parts, winning games by way of stout defense and timely offense.

The Wildcats, too, showed their share of resiliency throughout the season.

For instance, they withstood a nagging early season injury to senior tailback Jamaal Johnson, who was expected to be one of the most dynamic players on offense; instead, he was only able to play bits and pieces of games from mid-October through the end of the season.

Meanwhile, in the playoffs, the Wildcats overcame a 16-0 halftime deficit in the state semifinals game against Duval Charter, ripping off 27 unanswered points to send them to the state championship game. The state title game also proved to be a test of mettle, as the Wildcats held onto a 22-18 lead late into the fourth quarter before pulling away for good.

Here’s a rundown of some other notable highlights throughout 2018:

  • Zephyrhills shuffleboard great Earl Ball surpasses 1,000 career points
  • Steinbrenner High School baseball coach John Crumbley enters the Florida High School Athletic Hall of Fame
  • Gaither High School alum/Florida International University quarterback Alex McGough is drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft
  • Land O’ Lakes High School’s Sydny Nasello wins Class 3A Player of the Year, and is named a 2018 Miss Soccer finalist
  • Saint Leo men’s lacrosse becomes the state’s first lacrosse program to make a national championship appearance
  • Carrollwood Day School varsity baseball reaches program’s first state final four
  • Academy at the Lakes varsity baseball celebrates its first winning season
  • Land O’ Lakes High School is one of three Pasco Schools named a Special Olympics National Banner Unified Champion School
  • Land O’ Lakes youth resident Brett Swanbom wins a world championship as a member of the 2018 U.S. Junior Barefoot Water Ski Team
  • Sunlake High School girls swimming & diving team unseats Land O’ Lakes High School to win the 2018 Sunshine Athletic Conference Championships
  • Former Gaither High School/current Hillsborough High School football coach Earl Garcia becomes all-time winningest coach in Tampa Bay
  • Wiregrass Ranch junior linebacker Dylan Ridolph sets the Pasco County record for career sacks, with 37
  • Longtime Sunlake High School football coach Bill Browning retires following a 29-year head coaching career throughout the North Suncoast
  • Zephyrhills High School football records an undefeated 10-0 regular season
  • Wesley Chapel High School basketball coach Doug Greseth wins 500th career game

Published December 26, 2018

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