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 two of a two-part series.)
Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus ready for play
Spacious, bio-cushioned hardwood floors sparkled under the lights.
Multisport electronic scoreboards operated without a hitch.
Myriad ceiling-hung basketball goals and volleyball nets were mechanically lowered and raised in minutes.
Centralized cheerleading/dance springboard floor was square for stunts and tumbling.
Adjacent outdoor multi-use grass fields were manicured and marked up for soccer, lacrosse and other events.
The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County was officially game ready upon an Aug. 27 ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the site, at 3211 Lajuana Blvd., in Wesley Chapel.
Featuring 98,000 square feet of indoor space, the complex is hyped as a destination for local youth, school teams and adult athletes, while also playing host to a diverse set of regional, national and international level sports tournaments year-round, primarily in basketball, volleyball and cheerleading.
Underscoring its scope: the multi-use sports complex is large enough to hold either 16 volleyball games or eight full-court basketball games at any given time.
Two 35,500-square-foot gyms are separated by a cheer/dance studio, athletic training center and second-level mezzanine, set below 37-foot-high ceilings.
Furthermore, spacious floors can be converted to accommodate other sports, such as pickleball (up to 16 courts), futsal (up to eight courts), as well as large-scale wrestling, mixed martial arts (MMA) or karate tournaments.
The $29 million field house is the centerpiece of a $44 million public-private project.
In time, it will be phased to include seven outdoor multi-use fields and a 128-room hotel situated on 80 acres of land donated by the Porter family, one of the area’s leading cattle ranchers who established Wiregrass Ranch in 1942.
The athletics campus is a public-private partnership between the county, who owns the land and facility, and RADD Sports, a private sports management company tasked with handling day-to-day programming, maintenance and operations.
The complex is open for public use and local leagues Monday through Thursday, while Friday through Sunday will generally be reserved for attracting out-of-area tournaments.
Zephyrhills celebrates tennis center grand opening
An Oct. 17 grand opening celebration of the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center was serenaded in maybe the most Zephyrhills way possible — with a slew of skydiving parachute landings on the nearly 10-acre property, at 6585 Simons Road.
If the special event was any indication — even with the COVID-19 pandemic — the state-of-the art tennis complex may put the city on the map not unlike how the airborne extreme sport has for decades.
Over 400 mask-wearing visitors turned out to get a firsthand look at a finished product five years in the making — accomplished through myriad partnerships between city, state, and private investment and donations.
The $4.9 million tennis complex is labeled, “Tampa’s first boutique-style racquet sports and wellness club.”
It lives up to the billing through:
- 11 regulation-sized outdoor tennis courts (nine clay surface, two hard surface)
- Eight outdoor pickleball courts
- Four outdoor padel courts
- Outdoor multipurpose turf field
- The nearly 8,000-square-foot indoor clubhouse, featuring a full-service restaurant/cafe, fitness center, salt room, yoga room, cryotherapy chamber and pro shop.
Though membership-based, guest users are encouraged to make court rentals and partake in other frills.
Besides being a public asset, the complex is expected to draw regional, national and international amateur and professional tournaments in tennis, pickleball and padel.
The facility is named in honor of Sarah Vande Berg, a former Zephyrhills High School district champion and three-time state qualifier who died in an automobile accident in South Carolina at the age of 21, on Oct. 11, 2015.
The tennis center venture is a public-private partnership between the City of Zephyrhills and Pascal Collard, a longtime tennis pro and instructor serving as the facility’s CEO.
The municipality owns the state-of-the-art tennis facility, but Collard is responsible for its day-to-day operations and programming.
Lutz native Kevin Cash manages Rays to World Series
Lutz native/Gaither High alum Kevin Cash came full circle with his baseball career when he managed the hometown Tampa Bay Rays to the sport’s grandest stage —the 2020 World Series.
The Rays did lose in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in late October at Globe Life Field, in Arlington, Texas.
The feat was still monumental, nonetheless.
The Rays manager had done yeoman’s work in guiding the squad to its second and deepest World Series appearance in franchise history — the other coming in 2008, where the team lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Amid a logistically, emotionally taxing, pandemic-delayed, 60-game shortened season, Cash navigated historic feats out of a young, diverse team with a low payroll, dearth of superstars and household names that encountered a slew of injuries.
To place in perspective: Tampa Bay’s $28.3 million prorated payroll — third lowest in the Majors — paled in comparison to the $108.4 million sum of the Dodgers.
Also, the Rays had 15 different players serve a total of 20 injured-list stints. (On Sept. 1, they set a team-record-tying — not in a good way — 13 players unavailable for action.)
Weeks after guiding the Rays to the American League’s best regular season record (40-20) and the franchise’s second World Series berth in history, Cash deservedly was crowned 2020 AL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).
The 42-year-old Cash received 22 of 30 first-place votes and 126 total points in the BBWAA’s scoring to win over former Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria (61) and current Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo (47).
Cash’s ties to the local community run deep, meanwhile.
He grew up in the Valley Ranch Drive neighborhood across from Lake Park in Lutz, along North Dale Mabry Highway.
He was a 12-year-old second baseman on the 1989 Northside Little League team that reached the 43rd Little League World Series.
He would later star at Gaither and Florida State University through the mid- and late- 1990s before enjoying an eight-year MLB career as a journeyman catcher.
Following his playing career, Cash became a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays (2012) and then bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians (2013-2014), before landing the Tampa Bay managerial gig in 2015.
Toronto Raptors hold training camp at Saint Leo
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought much angst to the sports world and beyond in 2020, it also led to some unique, if not positive, occurrences.
One of the most notable was the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Toronto Raptors hosting training camp at Saint Leo University’s Marion Bowman Activities Center, from Dec. 1 through Dec. 11.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the franchise was unable to start the 2020-2021 regular season in Toronto due to Canada-U.S. border restrictions.
Needing a temporary home in the states, Raptors players voted that they preferred to begin their 2020-2021 season in Tampa over cities such as Buffalo, Fort Lauderdale, Louisville, Nashville and Newark.
As the franchise readied its temporary home at Channelside’s Amalie Arena and makeshift practice facility at JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, the Raptors needed someplace nearby to hold its two weeklong training camp.
That’s when some deep coaching ties came to assist.
Saint Leo men’s basketball coach Lance Randall has known Raptors head coach Nick Nurse for over 20 years — a relationship dating back to when the pair were coaching against each other in Europe.
It was sometime in mid-November when Randall received a random text message from Nurse, inquiring about the college’s basketball facilities as a possible camp site as the team made preparations for a move stateside.
Randall subsequently went into recruiting pitch mode, self-assured the Bowman Center would be a slam dunk for the Raptors.
The Bowman Center has 10 basketball hoops, two-full sized courts and a 4,444 square-foot weight room.
The facility also has a balcony overlooking the practice gym, which allowed team scouts and management to get a bird’s-eye view of all the action.
Add to that a serene setting devoid of distractions in rural East Pasco County off State Road 52, some 35 miles north of the team’s downtown Tampa hotel stay.
Multiple in-person visits by Raptors officials to campus sealed the deal, the amenities clearly to their liking.
For the duration of Raptors training camp, buses shuttled players, coaches and officials to Saint Leo, generally between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., each day.
As many as four shuttle buses could be seen parked at any one time next to the Bowman Center.
Raptors management strived to normalize the temporary setting, wrapping the university’s fitness center, end mats and other portions of the arena in team logos and its signature red and black color scheme.
On the whole, the Raptors came away quite pleased with the university’s athletic facilities and community welcoming.
“I think it’s been great,” Raptors all-star power forward Pascal Siakam said of the training camp experience at Saint Leo. “I would say we’ve been blessed to be able to have a facility like that. Definitely a shoutout to Saint Leo for letting us use the gym and be a part of what they have here.
“I think it’s been great just being here and having everything under one roof. I just know, obviously, we appreciate it as a team.”
Published December 30, 2020