As we embark on a new year, the sports world within The Laker/Lutz News coverage area promises to deliver plenty to watch, experience and appreciate.
Here is a sampling of what’s ahead in 2021:
Elite junior hockey at Center Ice
The AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel may best be known for housing the 2017-2018 U.S. women’s national ice hockey team in its historic run to winning an Olympic gold medal.
The 150,500-square-foot facility — the largest ice rink south of New York — also will play host to another prestigious hockey group in 2021.
The United States Premier Hockey League — one of the nation’s top junior-level development programs — announced plans to play a six-weeklong, 20-game schedule across Center Ice’s four sheets of ice, beginning in January.
Using a “Hub City” concept, teams and players throughout the country will lodge at nearby Saddlebrook Resort, in between games and practices at Center Ice.
Some these players will wind up playing collegiate and maybe even professional hockey.
Zephyrhills tennis center to host pro tournament
The newly opened Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center soon will begin living up to its promise of being a national and international draw.
The multimillion sports complex will host a $25,000 United States Tennis Association (USTA) Pro Circuit Event from Jan. 25 through Jan. 31.
The competition will feature 32 women’s singles players and 16 doubles teams — which encompasses some of the world’s top pros who are also slated to compete in the Australian Open.
The prestigious tourney is expected to be an annual affair at the facility, at 6585 Simons Road in Zephyrhills.
Super Bowl LV in Tampa
America’s most-watched sporting event — the Super Bowl — will take center stage at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7.
The community and economic impact to the surrounding area — even amid the COVID-19 pandemic — is sure to spread northwards through Hillsborough and Pasco counties, in the form of hotel stays, restaurant patronage and leisure about town. Several ancillary Super Bowl events and outreach programs have already been scheduled in those areas, too.
Also, don’t be shocked if a former local prep star (or more) is a part of contending teams in the 55th edition of the NFL championship game.
Toronto Raptors call Tampa home, temporarily
As if history wasn’t already made with Super Bowl being in Tampa this year, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors are playing at least the first half of its 2020-2021 home slate at Amalie Arena on Channelside.
A limited number of fans are being allowed to the games, so it’s a good opportunity to be a part of a rare occurrence and see some of the sport’s most talented players in the world, not too far from your backyard.
There’s also a further local connection: The Raptors had their two-weeklong preseason training camp at Saint Leo University’s Marion Bowman Activities Center, back in December.
The Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School varsity boys basketball team has quickly established itself as one of the area’s highest-scoring and high-flying squads since beginning its 2020-2021 season in November.
The team features a junior trio of bona fide Division I prospects in 6-foot-4 guard Antonio Davis Jr., 6-foot-7 forward Dillon Mitchell and 6-foot-4 guard Emanuel Sharp, who last year led the state in scoring (31.9 points per game) while at Tampa’s Blake High School. An example of the Hurricanes dominance: They defeated Land O’ Lakes High School 80-34 in an early December contest. The team is coached by former USF and Israel pro standout Derrick Sharp.
With all that talent, perhaps a state title is in the team’s reach come early March? Wait to see.
Spring can’t come soon enough
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out most, if not all, of last year’s Florida high school spring sports season throughout Florida from March onward, as a matter of health and safety.
The long-awaited return of these athletic events — baseball, lacrosse, softball, tennis, track and field, boys volleyball, water polo, boys weightlifting — should yield special (and emotional) moments for countless athletes, fans, coaches and parents alike.
Perhaps a few records will be broken and championships won by locals will occur along the way, too.
Worth noting: The area generates its fair share of the state’s strongest baseball, softball and track and field programs, among others.
Bored? Take a hike
Still suffering from pandemic-induced cabin fever? Perhaps some fresh air and outdoor exercise in a local park or preserve can clear the homebound blues.
That can be done via Hillsborough County’s fifth annual Hiking Spree, which challenges participants to complete at least eight trail hikes from November through March 31.
The Hiking Spree’s trail list this year features 25 different trails at 20 locations throughout the county.
And, several of those sites fall within The Laker/Lutz News coverage area: Carrollwood Village Neighborhood Park, Peterson Road Park, Lettuce Lake Conservation Park, Lake Rogers Conservation Park, Lake Dan Nature Preserve and Cypress Creek Nature Preserve.
Participants may hike on their own, or in a group setting with friends and family. Some sites have entrance and parking fees. Hikers may repeat any trail twice for credit, as long as the hikes occur on different dates.
Aside from the feeling of accomplishment, those who complete the hiking extravaganza earn their choice of a patch, medallion for a walking stick, or a dog bandana.
Lutz native again leads Tampa Bay Rays
The new year should again generate another fruitful campaign for Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash, a Lutz native and Gaither High School alumnus.
Prospects remain high for a Cash-led club that reached Game 6 of the 2020 World Series and finished with the best record in the American League during a pandemic-delayed and shortened season.
Also, expect to see and hear more of the reigning AL Manager of the Year in the new year, given the MLB is seeking terms resembling pre-pandemic levels, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 to 162 regular season games, plus spring training.
However long the 2021 slate, the Rays will be fighting its third-straight playoff berth under the 43-year-old Cash, entering his seventh season as Rays skipper.
Preps to pros
The annual MLB Draft creates an opportunity for boyhood dreams of becoming a professional baseball player to become true.
Each year, about a handful of area high school or college prospects are taken in the draft —offered anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to play America’s greatest pastime.
At least one name to watch in the July event is former Sunlake High School right-handed pitcher Tommy Mace, now a senior at the University of Florida. Various baseball outlets believe the 6-foot-6 Mace has the potential to be a first round pick, which could mean a signing bonus of several million dollars.
In three varsity seasons at Sunlake from 2015 to 2017, Mace posted a 19-6 record, 1.65 ERA and 196 strikeouts across 165.2 innings pitches. He also guided the Seahawks to the 2017 Class 7A regional finals.
Seeking an outdoor adventure? Try scalloping
Grab a snorkel, a swim mask and some fins because recreational scallop season returns again this summer in Pasco County.
The now annual 10-day bay scallop season in Pasco County is tentatively scheduled from July 16 through July 25. It begins the third Friday in July each year.
The county’s scallop zone encompasses all state waters south of the Hernando-Pasco county line and north of the Anclote Key Lighthouse in northern Pinellas County, and includes all waters of the Anclote River.
The outdoor family friendly activity of hunting for scallops is often referred to as an underwater Easter egg hunt.
Requiring only basic swimming skills, the idea is to float along the top of the water until you spot scallop shells in Florida seagrass beds lying several feet underwater, then you grab them by hand, or with a landing or dip net.
Pasco is the southernmost county in Florida to offer a scallop season.
Published January 06, 2021