Coaches were celebrated, state titles acquired and local athletes turned in outstanding performances.
The past year brought countless moments and lasting memories in sports, from Lutz and Land O’ Lakes, across to Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.
Here’s a look back at some of the top sports happenings from 2017:
Florida Hospital Center Ice opens
Hockey and ice-skating enthusiasts rejoiced when the largest ice sports facility in the Southeastern United States finally opened its doors in Wesley Chapel.
The 150,500-square-foot Florida Hospital Center Ice, unveiled in January, took about 2 ½ years to complete.
The main attraction of the $22.5 million complex, of course, is its four full-size rinks (one Olympic, three National Hockey League) and one kid-size rink.
Previously, many Pasco and northern Hillsborough residents would trek to Brandon’s Ice Sports Forum to get their hockey and skating fix. Others may have used the Clearwater Ice Arena or the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar.
Besides serving local hockey players, skaters and curlers, the facility already has scored on Pasco’s sports tourism initiative by hosting a number of camps, collegiate competitions and other tournaments — drawing an estimated 1.5 million visitors in its first year.
It has also become the training home of the U.S. women’s national hockey team, as members prepare for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Land O’ Lakes High wins state softball title
It had been nearly 25 years since a Pasco County school won a state softball title — until May 20.
On that day, Land O’ Lakes seized the Class 6A state softball championship, unseating powerhouse Plantation American Heritage 3-1, at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
The achievement marked the first fastpitch title for Land O’Lakes and the first for a Pasco County program since Ridgewood High won in 1992.
What made the victory even sweeter for the Gators was downing the same team that eliminated them in the 2016 state semifinals.
They did it in comeback fashion, too.
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, Land O’ Lakes unearthed timely hits and capitalized on opposition mistakes to build the lead for good — against an American Heritage program that was making its fourth-straight championship game appearance and had previously won seven state titles.
The Gators ended the year with a 29-3 record.
And, the accolades didn’t stop there.
In July, Gators coaches were named the 2017 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) High School Coaching Staff of the Year, beating out staffs from other top-tier programs in California, New Jersey, Illinois and Kansas. The recognition went to Gators fourth-year head coach Mitch Wilkins and assistants Edwin Rodriguez, Janet Sciales and Vinny Guarracino.
Paralympic athletes excel at nationals
It was another banner year for Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay.
The team in July won its second straight Small Team Division at the National Junior Disability Championships in Middleton, Wisconsin.
Three athletes — Eric Lowry, 17, of Land O’ Lakes; Danielle Kanas, 12, of Lutz; and 16-year-old Logan Krepop of Parrish — earned a combined thirty-three medals and set nine national records. In total, they collected 18 gold, 11 silver and four bronze medals.
Kanas — a single-arm amputee, missing her left arm below the elbow — herself collected 15 gold medals and set six national records this year.
That included a javelin throw of 19.66 meters, shattering the previous record for her age group by six meters.
After the season, Kanas earned Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay’s “Spirit of Excellence” award. The club’s highest honor, it recognizes courage, strength, determination and demonstration of a positive attitude as a role model.
Beyond athletics, Kanas is a “straight-A” student at Martinez Middle School, and member of the National Junior Honor Society, a Girl Scout, and patient ambassador at Shriner’s Hospital for Children-Tampa. She’s also a talented guitar player.
The others likewise have overcome various hardships to shine in athletics.
Lowry has spina bifida and competes from a wheelchair. It didn’t stop him from benching 190 pounds, earning a gold medal and setting an Adaptive Sports Junior national record.
And Krepop, who has cerebral palsy, earned a gold medal in the 400-meter run. His time of 1:33.14 set a new Adaptive Sports record for his age group.
Zephyrhills High honors winningest football coach
It was the perfect time for Zephyrhills High School to honor its winningest football coach.
The Bulldogs earned a district championship, won a playoff game, and finished the season with 10 wins.
That was all last done in 2002 — under former longtime coach Tom Fisher.
This year, the school’s Bulldog Stadium was formally renamed Tom Fisher Field at its Oct. 27 homecoming
The dedication ceremony was attended by Fisher, and drew dozens of former players and coaches, as well as many of his family members and friends.
Fisher — regarded as a hard-nosed, no nonsense type who voraciously studied game films — retired in 2008 after 21 years as head coach.
In his tenure, Fisher won 124 games (most in program history) and led Bulldogs teams to eight playoff berths, four conference championships and three district titles; he also was a four-time conference coach of the year.
Moreover, the Zephyrhills football program had gone 47 years without a state playoff appearance until Fisher’s arrival, making it in his first season in 1989.
Another example of Fisher’s extensive impact: The Bulldogs’ past two head coaches, Nick Carroll and Reggie Roberts, both played for him over 20 years ago.
The most successful player under Fisher was defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, who played 14 years in the NFL, mostly for the St. Louis Rams and Green Bay Packers. Pickett, a 1998 Zephyrhills graduate, started as a freshman at Ohio State, left after his junior season to play professionally and was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Though its been nearly a decade since the 65-year-old Fisher last roamed the sidelines, he still can be found in the stands at many Bulldogs home games.
Academy at the Lakes wins state football title
Following three straight losing football seasons, Academy at the Lakes football experienced a remarkable turnaround in 2017 — capped by its first eight-man state title on Dec. 9 with a 30-9 win over Jacksonville Old Plank Academy.
The Wildcats, under fourth-year head coach Shawn Brown, finished the season 11-1, with a 7-0 district mark.
Many of their wins came in dominating fashion, with an average scoring margin of nearly 34 points.
It was quite the contrast from past years.
The team went 2-8 in 2016, after finishing 4-7 and 3-5 the prior two seasons.
This year’s success harkens back to its summer offseason program, which included weightlifting sessions three days a week, participating in Division I college camps, and competing in various seven-on-seven tournaments — sometimes facing 11-man schools from Classes 7A and 8A.
The Wildcats’ solid talent base didn’t hurt its gridiron performances, either.
Senior tailback/linebacker Daniel Gonzalez was the most productive two-way player in the eight-man ranks— rushing for 1,125 yards and 24 touchdowns on offense, and tallying 138 tackles and 7.5 sacks on defense.
Several others made significant impacts as well, including freshmen Jalen Brown and Jordan Oladokun, juniors Jamaal Johnson and Dylan Price, and senior Isaiah Smith, among others.
The football program’s last state title came in 2006, when Academy at the Lakes played in the six-man ranks.
Some other notable highlights from 2017:
- Wesley Chapel High varsity softball has first winning season in program history
- Cypress Creek High varsity football wins its inaugural game against Gulf High
- Wesley Chapel hoops product Erik Thomas appears in NCAA Tournament
- Academy at the Lakes athlete Alexis Kilfoyl makes 2017 USA Softball Junior Women’s National Training Team
- Land O’Lakes’ Jabari Ramsey becomes the first boys swimmer from Pasco County to win three-straight state titles in the same event (100 breaststroke).
- Carrollwood Day School volleyball wins the Class 4A state title, to earn the school’s first state championship in any sport.
• Steinbrenner baseball alum Kevin Merrell is selected by the Oakland Athletics in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft.
Published December 27, 2017