This past year levied countless memories in the local sports scene — from shattered records and career achievements for individuals and teams, to several major events and showcases in the area.
Here is a look back at some of the moments in sports in 2021, 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 Little League celebrates 50th anniversary
The start of each Little League season often elicits a heightened level of nostalgia.
With spring in the air, youth of all ages and skills partake in America’s favorite pastime, testing their mettle on the mound, at the plate and in the field.
For Land O’ Lakes Little League, this year’s Opening Day festivities took on added significance: The organization celebrated its 50th anniversary on Feb. 27, at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, off Collier Parkway.
The organization actually formed back in 1967 at the Land O’ Lakes Community Center (now Heritage Park) off U.S. 41, but it didn’t receive its first Little League charter until 1971.
The local league has come a long way since its initial startup — boasting upwards of 800 boys and girls, ages 4 to 16, playing baseball and softball across 10 fields.
The large ballfield took center stage in the league’s season-opening event.
Teams from all age divisions were spread across the infield and outfield, signaling the league’s staying power and sustained growth.
First pitches were accurately thrown from veteran baseball players, as well softball Little League players.
Local players sang the national anthem and read the league pledge.
There was the unveiling, too, of a framed 50th anniversary “golden ticket” issued and signed by the Little League International Headquarters, which is based in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
The beauty of the organization is it’s a recreational format.
It welcomes the novice player that may never make an all-star team or play high school ball, to others who have the potential to earn college scholarships and maybe play professionally someday.
“I think every kid should play Little League,” Land O’ Lakes Little League President Gary Gwinn told The Laker/Lutz News.
NBA hopefuls showcase hoops skills in Wesley Chapel
Pasco County and the greater Tampa Bay region isn’t really known for its basketball prowess, but that reputation, or lack thereof, may soon change.
Pursuing dreams of playing professional basketball, a large group of athletes dropped by Wesley Chapel, of all places.
In early June, some 50 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft-eligible hopefuls descended upon the area to showcase their athleticism and hoops skills in the inaugural Tampa Bay Pro Combine (TBPC), at the AdventHealth Sports Arena at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.
The elite-level hoopers — many from recognizable high and mid-major NCAA Division I programs — dribbled, dunked, jumped, shot and passed their way into the eyes and impressions of various NBA and international coaches and scouts.
Several names may be familiar from deep runs in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball March Madness tournament, such as University of Southern California guard Tahj Eaddy, University of Houston forward Justin Gorham, and University of Loyola-Chicago center Cameron Krutwig, among others.
The three-day event featured drills, games (5-on-5, 2-on-2 and 3-on-3), athletic testing and measurements, as well as a 3-point shootout, dunk contest and more.
The player selection committee was led by ESPN television analyst Fran Fraschilla and BasketballNews.com NBA Draft analyst Matt Babcock, who were there to evaluate players during the weekend.
The competition came together in a matter of about six weeks, seeking to replicate the Virginia-based Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a long-running hoops combine event canceled a second-straight year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Quade Green was the leading scorer at the University of Washington this past season, at 15.4 points per game.
Like others, it was his first time stepping into the Wiregrass Sports Campus.
He came away impressed with the state-of-the-art digs.
“This is a beautiful gym,” Green said, in an interview with The Laker/Lutz News. “Lot of great players here, great people around you, too. They’ve got connections. Life connections, too, for the long run.”
Zephyrhills runner competes in U.S. Olympic trials
Evan Miller’s sprint for a spot on Team USA for the Tokyo Summer Olympics may have come up short — but it was still an experience most athletes can only ever dream about.
The Zephyrhills athlete on June 25 competed in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at the legendary Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
Miller — then a rising senior at University of South Carolina — clocked 21.04 seconds in the first-round heat of the men’s 200-meter dash, finishing 23rd overall.
He competed in the same heat against other widely known professional sprinters, including Terrance Laird and Jaron Flourney, among others.
The competition was televised live nationally on NBC Sports Network.
Miller’s trials mark was a shade off his personal best of 20.50 seconds — which he recorded at the Weems Baskin Relays hosted on-campus at South Carolina in late March; he wound up earning second-team NCAA All-American honors during the season, too.
Miller was one of about 30 sprinters nationwide who either qualified or accepted an invitation, and declared for the men’s 200-meter trials event.
From there, the top three men’s 200-meter finishers at trials earned spots on the U.S. Olympic team — Noah Lyles (first, 19.74 seconds), Kenny Bednarek (second, 19.78) and Erriyon Knighton (third, 19.84).
While disappointed with his own trials output overall, Miller relished the opportunity so very few earn — let alone coming off a 2020 track season hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“All around, it was a really good experience,” Miller told The Laker/Lutz Newspaper. “It was kind of surreal that I was there with the top athletes in the country. It was just a really good feeling. I was kind of trying to take it all in, but I also couldn’t like believe it at the same time.”
Before college, Miller had made a name for himself as a sprinter at Zephyrhills Christian Academy.
His senior year, he won the Class 1A individual crown 100-meter dash (10.75) at the 2018 FHSAA State Track & Field Championships. He also was a leg of the school’s 4×100 relay team that won back-to-back state crowns in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Locals athletes taken in 2021 MLB Draft
It’s not uncommon for at least a few ballplayers from area high schools and colleges to be taken in the Major League Baseball (MLB) first-year player draft.
The year 2012 was no different, as five local athletes from The Laker/Lutz News coverage area were taken in the nationally televised draft, which spanned 20 rounds (and 612) picks from July 11 through July 13:
- Sunlake High/University of Florida pitcher Tommy Mace (Cleveland Indians/Guardians, Comp B, 69th overall)
- Wharton High shortstop Zach Ehrhard (Boston Red Sox, 13th round, 376th overall)
- Gaither High shortstop A.J. Graham (Pittsburgh Pirates, 18th round, 523rd overall)
- Saint Leo University left-handed pitcher Jimmy Burnette (Toronto Blue Jays, 18th round, 543rd overall)
- Gaither High/University of Texas third baseman Cam Williams (Kansas City Royals, 19th round, 559th overall)
Every player, except for Ehrhard opted to sign with their drafted team, for various dollar figures.
Mace — the highest selection from the local community — inked with the Indians (now Guardians) for a $1.1 million signing bonus; Graham signed with the Pirates for $125,000; Burnette signed with Blue Jays for $50,000; and, Williams signed with the Royals for $25,000.
Ehrhard, meanwhile, will play collegiate baseball at NCAA Division I Oklahoma State University, majoring in applied exercise science with a focus on strength and conditioning. He was this year’s recipient of the 2021 Wade Boggs Athletic Achievement Award, which honors a high school baseball player in Hillsborough County on the basis of outstanding athletic, scholastic and community achievements.
(While slightly outside our coverage area in west Pasco County, Fivay High/University of Mississippi product Gunnar Hoglund went in the first round (19th overall) to the Blue Jays. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander from Hudson ultimately signed with the team for just under $3.25 million.)
National champion returns home to teach aspiring players
Land O’ Lakes native Shannon Saile was a part of history — guiding the University of Oklahoma women’s softball team to the 2021 NCAA Division I national title, serving as one of its top senior pitchers.
With her decorated athletic career in tow, Saile’s next major task was organizing a series of fastpitch softball clinics to train the next generation of youth standouts.
To do that, the 23-year-old returned to her central Pasco hometown and set foot on the same park ballfields that forged a pathway for myriad athletic accomplishments.
The upstart Shannon Saile Pitching Clinic was held on July 25 at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, home to Land O’ Lakes Little League.
About 30 girls — ages 8 to 15 — took part on a steamy Sunday, eager to take in guidance from Saile and other widely known pitching instructors and volunteers.
With Saile’s tutelage, young campers sharpened their fastballs and secondary offerings like changeups, through arm path mechanics and leg drive techniques, as well as various speed, agility and balance drills.
“I just hope that I can teach them the foundation of pitching, because it’s much more important than just getting out there and throwing pitches,” Saile explained to The Laker/Lutz News. “The drills are super important, because they help me grow my strength and my confidence in my pitches.”
Besides learning newfound softball techniques, campers also had an opportunity to get signed autographs and take pictures with Saile, who’s become a household name in the sports world. She was invited to ESPN’s nationally televised 2021 ESPY Awards, for being part of one of the best moments from the year in sports.
Saile goes down as one of the most accomplished — if not most accomplished — fastpitch softball players to ever come out of Land O’ Lakes High School and the greater Tampa Bay area.
As a Gator, she amassed 517 strikeouts and a career 1.76 ERA in four varsity seasons from 2013 to 2016, also compiling a combined 41 wins, 31 complete games, 11 shutouts and five no-hitters.
The advancement to the college ranks likewise went swimmingly for the 5-foot-7 right-hander.
Saile began her Division I softball career at Florida International University, finding immediate success with a pair of sub-2.00 ERA seasons in the circle, before transferring to Oklahoma.
As a redshirt senior this past season, Saile posted an impressive 1.70 ERA and 1.06 WHIP while being second on the team in wins (17), innings pitched (100.1), complete games (six), and strikeouts (132).
Published December 29, 2021