New recreation facilities opened, prep teams competed for state titles and local athletes accomplished memorable achievements, despite challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Here is a look at some of the top moments in sports, from across Pasco and Hillsborough counties, in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area. (This is part one of a two-part series.)
Land O’ Lakes youth sets race record
Land O’ Lakes Elli Black didn’t just win the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 8K women’s race on Feb. 21, she became the youngest winner in the event’s 40-plus year history, at just 11 years old.
Black clocked 30:57 in the 4.97-mile course to best more than 2,200 female participants in the popular annual race on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. The second-place female finisher, St. Petersburg’s Mary Beth Layfield, 37, timed 32:23.
On becoming race champion and making history, Black said: “It’s a really big accomplishment and I’m really proud of myself, and I just know that I’ve been very blessed with a God-given talent, and I’m just really happy to be able to use it to the fullest.”
Previously, the event’s youngest winner was 13-year-old Ellie Pleune, who won the race in 2017, with a time of 31:13.
A home-schooled student, Black runs for Cambridge Christian School’s varsity girls cross-country and track teams.
Sunlake girls weightlifting repeat at states
For the second straight year, the Sunlake High School varsity girls weightlifting program cemented itself as the state’s top dog at the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) Class 2A State Weightlifting Championships in Panama City Beach.
Coached by Denise Garcia, the Seahawks tallied 28 points to edge second-place finisher Navarre High School (26) and third place Winter Springs High School (24) — to become back-to-back state champions on Feb. 15.
The Seahawks program experienced another milestone — as two weightlifters earned individual state titles in the same year: Seniors Gianna Levy (139 pounds) and Juliette Pacheco (169 pounds) took first place in their respective weight classes. Pacheco also set a state record 225-pound bench press in her weight class.
All told, five of Sunlake’s seven state lifters earned points with top-six finishes in the bench press and clean-and-jerk aggregate lifts.
- Madison Guincho, junior — second place, 119-pound (180-160 — 340)
- Gianna Levy, senior — first place, 139-pound (175-180 — 355)
- Juliette Pacheco, senior — first place, 169-pound (225-185 — 410)
- Brianna Caban, senior — third place, 183-pound (200-170—370)
- Antoinette Farmer, senior—second place, 199-pound (210-190 — 400)
Land O’ Lakes hoops coach retires after 31 years
Land O’ Lakes High School varsity boys basketball coach Dave Puhalski was finally ready for a timeout.
After 31 years roaming the Gators sidelines, barking orders, drawing up plays, and molding boys into young men, the longtime coach announced his retirement following the 2019-2020 season, which ended Feb. 25.
Puhalski’s swan song was a memorable one — sending off eight seniors to the tune of a 21-6 mark, a 5A-7 district title and an appearance in the 5A regional semifinals.
He exited as one of the longest-tenured and among the most-decorated coaches in Pasco County sports history.
Puhalski compiled a 479-349 career record since taking over the Gators program in 1988.
The coach frequently emphasized “rebounding the ball, taking care of the ball and defending the ball.”
He was particularly well-regarded for his defense-first mentality — a philosophy that centered heavily on the man-to-man variety, with little regard for zone defenses.
“We play man to man,” Puhalski once told The Laker/Lutz News. “In 31 years (at Land O’ Lakes), we’ve probably played a minute worth of zone.”
In total, Puhalski spent more than 35 years coaching hoops.
Before taking over at Land O’ Lakes, Puhalski was an assistant at state champion Ocala Vanguard for three seasons and an assistant at University of Tampa for a year.
He put the meaning of his retirement into perspective: “After 35 years, I’ve never had a Christmas vacation, (or) a Thanksgiving vacation; the month of June is all summer league, kids playing, so really, it’s just time.”
Spring sports axed amid COVID-19
There was a glimmer of hope the 2020 Florida high school spring sports season would resume following its mid-March postponement, even through coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19).
But, optimism vanished when the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) on April 20 announced it would cancel all affiliated events for the remainder of the school year.
The cancellations included the state series and championships events, for all spring sports.
Affected FHSAA-sanctioned spring sports included baseball, flag football, lacrosse, softball, tennis, track & field, boys volleyball, water polo and boys weightlifting.
The statewide sports organization also then announced no additional eligibility would be granted for spring sport athletes, including seniors, “under the guidance of the Florida Department of Education regarding grade level retention, and upon review of Florida Statutes and FHSAA Bylaws.”
Just like that, high school senior athletic careers abruptly came to a close.
Several local athletes weighed in on the decision with The Laker/Lutz News, like Land O’ Lakes senior tennis standout Courtney Piltaver, a two-time Sunshine Athletic Conference East Girls Tennis Player of the Year who was poised to shine in her final high school tennis season.
“I was pretty upset because it was my senior year, and it really sucks that I didn’t get to enjoy the full season with my team and my coaches, and kind of just close out,” said Piltaver, who had signed a college scholarship with NCAA Division II University of Montevallo in Alabama.
Back on March 31, the FHSAA issued a statement that left open the possibility of a spring sports season, saying they could run from as soon as May 3 through June 30.
The FHSAA also indicated if a spring sports season is canceled altogether, it was working on a solution to create additional athletics eligibility for students who were unable to participate.
However, as days and weeks pressed on, many saw the writing on the wall that spring sports would not return this year, due to the pandemic.
Locals taken in 2020 MLB Draft
Childhood dreams of playing professional baseball became a reality for a couple athletes with ties to The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.
The Major League Baseball (MLB)’s 2020 first-year player draft was shortened to five rounds and 160 picks, from the usual 40 rounds in previous years, due to COVID-19.
The consolidated draft, however, didn’t stop some locals from hearing their name called — and seeing their bank accounts richen significantly — on Day 2 of the nationally televised draft on June 11.
- The highest-drafted local was Steinbrenner High/Florida State product CJ Van Eyk, taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the second round, at pick No. 42 overall. The 6-foot-1, 198-pound right-hander signed with the Blue Jays for $1.8 million.
- Trinity native/Mitchell High catcher Jackson Miller was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the third round (65th overall). The 6-foot, 195-pound lefty signed with the Reds for $1.29 million.
- The Philadelphia Phillies selected Wesley Chapel native/Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High/University of South Florida product Carson Ragsdale in the fourth round (116th overall). The 6-foot-8, 225 pound right-handed pitcher signed with the Phillies for $225,000.
All three players are expected to begin their pro careers in the minor league ranks come 2021.
Florida high school sports make fall return
After months of inactivity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, high school sports practices and games returned to action when Florida High School Athletic Association’s board members (FHSAA) voted 11-5 to allow member schools to begin fall sports on Aug. 24.
It signaled a long time coming, as prep sports had been in a sort of holding pattern since mid-March or so.
The FHSAA decision to all but immediately ramp up fall sports was far from easy — taking more than two hours of heated dialogue among board members during an Aug. 14 meeting at the Best Western Grand in Gainesville.
The contentious meeting was live-streamed for public viewing.
The organization’s decision contradicted a unanimous recommendation from the FHSAA’s 14-member Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC). That committee strongly advised sports not begin in any part of the state until the coronavirus is controlled, and declining in state and local regions. They also wanted to be able to study the impact of reopening schools on the COVID-19 infection rate, for at least a few weeks.
A majority of board members, however, voted in favor of bringing sports back for the fall, citing an overwhelming amount of support from student-athletes, parents, and even sport officials and school superintendents, from their respective district.
That point was emphasized when Jamie and Tami Kent spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.
As parents of a Tampa Cambridge Christian High School football player, they created an online petition titled “Let Us Play” attracting over 40,000 signatures urging the FHSAA to begin the fall sports season this month.
Those voices were heard, by the end of the day.
FHSAA executive director George Tomyn perhaps best summed up the board’s decision, which came at his recommendation.
“I’ve always thought of what can we do for our member schools, not what we cannot or will not be able to do,” Tomyn said at the meeting.
“I’m a firm believer in flexibility, especially in this challenging, challenging time that we’re in. I’m a firm believer in parental choice, and I’m a firm believer in local decision-making.”
Published December 23, 2020