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 Two of a two-part series.)
Bishop McLaughlin baseball coach brings major league pedigree
Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School tabbed a decorated big-leaguer to lead its pedigreed baseball program, back in August.
His name is Rob Ducey, and he spent parts of 13 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) between 1987 to 2001 — playing for the Toronto Blue Jays, California Angels, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos.
A left-handed hitting outfielder, Ducey played over 700 games in the majors, posting a .242 batting average, .331 on-base percentage, .396 slugging percentage, with 309 hits, 190 runs, 146 RBIs, 31 home runs and 22 stolen bases.
Ducey later served as a hitting coach in the minor leagues for the New York Yankees, Expos and Phillies; and was a talent scout for the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays.
This baseball lifer status — and one of the very few Canadian big-leaguers — has Ducey enshrined into both the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame (2006) and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (2013).
All told, Ducey has been involved with professional baseball in some shape or form for over 37 years.
And now, the 56-year-old Tarpon Springs resident is taking his varied experiences to the Hurricanes varsity baseball program, which has won five district championships and two regional championships, and has made a pair of state final four appearances
Ducey has clear expectations for the area team he takes over.
“Obviously, I want the pitchers to throw strikes, I want the defenders to handle the baseball, and the hitters to be able to situational hit,” he said, in an exclusive interview with The Laker/Lutz News.
“We may not have the most ability on the field, but you’re going to know that you’ve got to fight, and if we do that every single day we come out and work improves in those areas, then it’ll be a successful year.”
Future NHL stars showcase skills in Wesley Chapel
For a few days, the National Hockey League’s (NHL) next generation of talent skated into Pasco County — showing puck fans and pro scouts their skills in shot-making, blocking, toughness and teamwork.
AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel was the site of the 2021 NHL Prospect Showcase, held from Sept. 18 through Sept. 21.
Hosted by the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the event also welcomed prospect teams from the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers.
With it being the Lightning’s turn to coordinate the event, the Wesley Chapel-based facility provided an ideal locale.
The 150,000-square-foot complex — the largest ice sports facility in the southeastern United States — is known for having four full-sized ice rinks and a mini-rink housed under one roof.
Aside from sheets of ice, the facility was designed to meet various NHL specifications, all the way down to specific railings and glass around the boards.
The facility also features an on-site sports medicine clinic with an evaluation and treatment room; a fully equipped fitness center with over 2,000 square feet of space; and a 90-yard indoor track turf.
Those features, plus the accessibility to on-site hotels and restaurants, as well as nearby Saddlebrook Resort, were other selling factors for the Lightning and other franchises, officials said.
Each prospect team featured a couple players who’ll likely see time in the NHL this year, which only added to the event’s allure.
Twenty-year-old Panthers goalie Spencer Knight fit that description.
Last year, Knight became the first goaltender to ever have played both in the Stanley Cup playoffs and NCAA (at Boston College) in the same season.
Meantime, Lightning fans received a glimpse of the franchise’s wave of younger talent over the course of the four-day competition.
The Lightning’s 24-man prospect squad finished the tournament as the only team with a perfect 3-0 record. They never trailed in any of their three tournament wins against the Hurricanes, Panthers and Predators.
Zephyrhills football volunteers receive permanent honor
Greg First and Kerry Ryman have witnessed their fair share of Zephyrhills High School football games over the last 40 years or so.
They’ve played a notable role over that time, too, with First providing play-by-play as stadium announcer, and Ryman operating the clock and scoreboard.
In many ways, the friendly pair were synonymous with Zephyrhills High athletics.
Because of those varied efforts, the Zephyrhills High press box at Tom Fisher Field in Bulldog Stadium officially was named the First-Ryman Press Box — during a pregame ceremony in October.
The press box dons the volunteers’ names in large black font with an orange backdrop — the school’s signature colors; Zephyrhills students designed and painted the press box’s new look, as a show of gratitude.
Year in and year out, First and Ryman built their respective Friday nights in football season around Bulldog football.
First had to be locked in on all aspects of the game — taking cues from spotters and properly pronouncing players’ names on a particular offensive or defensive play, all while peppering in various school announcements and sponsorships throughout the game, as his voice was heard by everyone from the stadium’s booming sound speakers.
Ryman, meanwhile, had to pay rapt attention to the game’s head official, monitoring various starts and stoppages in action and other game situations, while simultaneously following specific clock and scoring procedures.
As a part of the action for so long, First and Ryman were in on many highs, some lows and countless unforgettable occurrences. “There’s so many memories over the years that you really could write a book,” First told The Laker/Lutz News.
The two men relinquished their press box volunteering duties this season, after serving for some four decades.
Their press box presence may be gone, but it won’t soon be forgotten.
Freedom High swimmer wins state title
Local athletes and teams performed well at the 2021 FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) State Swimming and Diving Championships.
But it was Freedom High senior Michelle Morgan who registered the best individual showing among all area swimmers.
The Division I University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill verbal commit took gold in the 3A 200-yard individual medley, clocking 2:01.06 to finish ahead of Gainesville High senior Katherine Sammy (2:01.90).
Morgan also won the event last year, posting a 2:00.92.
The Freedom High swimmer collected additional individual hardware in 2021, taking silver in the 3A 500-yard freestyle.
Her time of 4:53.78 trailed only Chiles High senior Stella Watts, who swam in 4:46.86 in the event.
Morgan also was a leg on the Patriots’ medal-earning 200-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relay teams, which finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Other Freedom relay members were seniors Carly Joerin and Alexa Valdez Velez, and freshman Alex LaBohn.
Altogether, Morgan helped pace Freedom to arguably its best showing in program history. The girls squad finished fifth at states, won its first-ever regional title, and also claimed district and conference crowns.
“We had a phenomenal season,” Freedom head swim coach John Olewski wrote in an email to The Laker/Lutz News. “Assistant Coach Catherine Wright and I are so proud of the Freedom swimmers and divers. The administration, faculty, staff and students of Freedom High School applaud the Freedom Swim & Dive team members and join them in celebrating their many successes this season.”
Lutz native Kevin Cash claims second-straight manager award
Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash — a Lutz native and Gaither High product — became the first American League (AL) manager to win Manager of the Year twice in a row, announced by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) in November.
Also, Cash is only the second manager to win such a BBWAA Manager of the Year Award in back-to-back seasons — joining Bobby Cox, who did so with the National League’s Atlanta Braves in 2004 and 2005.
Cash was recognized for steering the Rays to a franchise-best 100-62 regular season mark in 2021. (However, the Rays playoff dreams ended sooner than expected, losing to the Red Sox in four games in the AL Division Series in October).
He did so under weighty circumstances, with one of the sport’s lowest payrolls, a bevy of injuries (33 different players being placed on the injured list) and a competitive division that featured three other teams that won 90-plus games (Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays).
Besides wins and losses, Cash receives high marks for his ever-changing batting orders, unconventional pitching usage, and ability to maintain a positive culture in the team clubhouse.
Locally, Cash grew up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood across from Lake Park in Lutz, along North Dale Mabry Highway.
His baseball notoriety began as a young boy.
Some three-plus decades ago, he was a 12-year-old second baseman on the 1989 Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series.
He later would star at Gaither High and Florida State University through the mid- and late- 1990s before enjoying an eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher.
Published January 05, 2022