New Year in sports offers plenty to watch, experience

As we embark on a new year, the sports world within The Laker/Lutz News coverage area promises to deliver plenty to watch, experience, and perhaps appreciate.

Here’s a closer look at some of the happenings in 2019:

One major development will be the progression of new sports facilities throughout East Pasco County  —  whether it’s the end-of-year completion of the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Complex, or the beginning of construction of others like the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis Center in Zephyrhills and the Christopher N. Chiles Aquatic Center in Land O’ Lakes.

Tied into all that, keep an eye on the initiatives put forth by Visit Pasco, the county’s tourism agency. Since rebranding its slogan to “Florida’s Sports Coast,” the county is looking to become a destination nationwide for youth and amateur sports.

Speaking of amateur sports, the new year is a good time to jump off the couch, get outdoors and pick up a new sport or activity.

AdventHealth Center Ice (formerly Florida Hospital Center Ice) will host several major tournaments in 2019, such as the USA Hockey adult men’s recreational national championships. (File)

The region presents countless opportunities year-round, from adult softball leagues at Land O’ Lakes Heritage Park, to recreational hockey leagues at AdventHealth Center Ice (formerly Florida Hospital Center Ice) in Wesley Chapel. Many local churches, including Idlewild Baptist Church, Grace Family Church and St. Timothy Catholic Church, offer their own sports leagues for all skill levels, from kickball and basketball, to flag football and soccer.

The cooler, early year temperatures are also a prime time to hit up the myriad of golf courses in Pasco. The St. Leo Abbey Golf Club in San Antonio and Fox Hollow Golf Club in Trinity are well-regarded, as are the more exclusive 36 holes offered at the Saddlebrook Resort & Spa.

Meantime, the adventure-seeking, fitness-oriented crowd may find it worthwhile to bike the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and the Withlacoochee State Trail; sign up for a Savage Race at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City; or, partake in Hillsborough County’s annual hiking spree, which includes visiting a number of nature parks and preserves countywide.

Several local churches, such as Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, offer a multitude of recreational sports leagues. (Courtesy of Idlewild Baptist Church)

There’s other fun, outdoor activities to give a try, too.

Exhilaration and excitement can also be found at places like TreeHoppers Aerial Adventure Park in Dade City and Skydive City in Zephyrhills. Horseback riding at Odessa’s Northwest Equestrian Conservation Park and rifle shooting at Tampa Bay Sporting Clays in Land O’ Lakes create a fun change of pace, in their own right.

Local sporting events are another highlight of the new year.

AdventHealth Center Ice will showcase its fair share. They include the Mrs. Hockey Invite, featuring the top U-12 girls talent from across the world; the 15th annual Toyota-USA Disabled Hockey Festival, the largest disabled hockey event of its kind; and, the USA Hockey adult men’s recreational national championships.

Silver Dollar Shooters Club in Odessa will play host to a series of premier events, including the Florida Hall of Fame Shoot/Silver Dollar Open, the Florida State Trap Shooting Championships, and the Southern Grand American Tournament.

This rendering shows the proposed Christopher N. Chiles Aquatics Center in Land O’ Lakes, which would add to the growing list of sports facility assets in Pasco County. (File)

Elsewhere, traditional sports-goers should also make a point to check out the various men’s and women’s college sports at Saint Leo University — consistently one of the nation’s Division II athletic programs — and Pasco-Hernando State College. Both institutions provide an up-close look at many athletes who wind up finding success in the professional sports ranks. That’s particularly been the case for Saint Leo’s baseball program, which has yielded seven MLB Draft picks since 2013.

Of course, the high school sports scene is worth watching as well.

The winter prep season is already underway, whereby several local schools are fielding top-notch basketball and soccer teams.

For instance, the Wesley Chapel boys basketball and Sunlake girls basketball have shown early promise, as have the boys and girls soccer teams at Wiregrass Ranch, among some others.

So, don’t be surprised if one or more of those squads wind up making deep playoff runs in their respective sport a couple months from now.

Come springtime, the central Pasco softball scene is sure to provide some exciting moments, as Academy at the Lakes, Land O’ Lakes and Sunlake each are coming off 20-plus win seasons.

The Savage Race, an extreme mud obstacle course, is held twice a year at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. (Courtesy of Savage Race)

Academy at the Lakes will be seeking its second-straight Class 2A state title, while Land O’ Lakes will be seeking its second Class 6A title in three years, respectively.

Both squads unquestionably have the veteran pitching firepower to again win state crowns, armed with Alabama signee Lexi Kilfoyl (Academy at the Lakes) and Tennessee signee Callie Turner (Land O’ Lakes) in the circle.

Other local softball programs like Gaither, Freedom, Steinbrenner and Cypress Creek are also coming off strong campaigns to inject some competition in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.

The 2019 football season, too, should offer some interesting wrinkles.

New coaches will take over at Pasco and Sunlake, effectively replacing two household names in Tom McHugh and Bill Browning, respectively.

Those programs — along with the other public schools throughout Pasco — will look to unseat Zephyrhills, which went undefeated last regular season and is now up to 19 straight regular season victories.

Another storyline to follow: Land O’ Lakes and the progression they make under second-year coach Chad Walker. In his first season as a high school football head coach, the 34-year-old Walker guided the Gators to a 7-3 mark in 2018 — the program’s first winning season since 2013.

The eight-man football ranks is sure to create intrigue, as well.

Academy at the Lakes will be seeking an unprecedented third consecutive state title.

The team — which also went undefeated in 2018 and is on a 20-game win streak — is expected to return many key pieces, including standout quarterback Jalen Brown, who will be a junior.

Published January 2, 2019

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