Top 10 stories of 2002
© St. Petersburg Times
10. Tucker's big-league season
He started spring training as a long shot, but former River Ridge standout T.J. Tucker earned a spot in the Expos' bullpen and stayed there all season long.
Tucker, whose major-league debut in 2000 was cut short after two starts due to an elbow injury, made 57 relief appearances in Montreal, finishing with a 6-3 record, four saves and 4.11 ERA.
The 24-year-old, who pitched at the Class AA and AAA levels last season, smoothly handled the transition from starter to reliever, posting numbers among the staff's best (4-0, 1.98) in the first three months of the season.
In the rare instances he was called upon to hit, Tucker made the most of his at-bats, coming up with hits in three of his four at-bats for a ridiculous .750 season average. Counting a 1-for-2 appearance in 2000, he now carries an .800 average into next season, when he and the Expos will split their home games between Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Other county prospects enjoyed stellar seasons. Former Pasco star Daniel Boyd hit .286 for the Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League before being promoted to the Brewers' California League affiliate. Land O'Lakes' Brad Baisley, pitching at Class AA Reading in the Phillies' system, went 7-9 with a 4.11 ERA and 64 strikeouts.
9. Hand wins state title
Zephyrhills junior Shane Hand was so dominant he wrestled the full six minutes four times in his first 51 matches, losing once.
In the state championship, the Bulldogs junior heavyweight had to go the distance against Cardinal Gibbons' Leon Harrington, and Hand still had the conditioning and endurance to win. Leading 5-4 in the final minute, he got an escape point, then a takedown with 15 seconds remaining for an 8-4 victory.
The championship is the second in Zephyrhills history (following Dan Zawicki in 1997) and the 19th by a county wrestler. Hand, a two-way starting lineman on the Bulldogs' district-champion football team, will have a chance to defend his title in February.
Hand, who finished 51-1, wasn't the only county wrestler making a splash in Lakeland. Teammate Nick Spine and Hudson's Luke Jubran took sixth and fourth, respectively, at 119 pounds. Pasco's Nate Engel was a state runner-up at 112, and teammates Juan Trevino and Devon Bryant took fifth and sixth, respectively.
8. Diamond stars shine
Two county teams kept their youth league seasons going long enough to make headlines in August. The Land O'Lakes Junior Baseball All-Stars reached the Southern Regional final and the West Pasco Angels softball team advanced to its second Dixie World Series in as many years.
Like any successful team, both started with dominant pitching. Lefty Jeff Bloomer led a talented Land O'Lakes staff of 13- and 14-year-olds that included a future three-sport high school star in Caz Piurowski. The 9- and 10-year-old Angels were led by Courtney Dougherty but needed contributions on the mound from six others to get to Eufaula, Ala.
The Angels lost their final two games, and the Juniors fell one win shy of reaching their World Series, but their success couldn't have been bigger back home. The Angels finished fifth despite several players opting for local play in another league, and the Juniors' state title was Land O'Lakes' first in the league's 31-year history.
7. Masterson led the pack
In two short years, Mitchell's Jeff Masterson has established himself as the dominant cross-country runner on the North Suncoast, a supremacy that could extend to the state level in the two years he still has ahead of him.
Masterson finished third at this year's state meet, leading the Mustangs to a third-place showing.
The sophomore was hardly challenged until the state meet, pushing himself to times often under 16 minutes in winning conference, district and region meets. The two runners who finished ahead of him at the state meet will graduate, painting a bull's-eye indelibly on Masterson's back.
That's probably a smart thing, though. The way Masterson has been running, if they painted it on his chest, the other runners might never see it.
6. Zephyrhills gets respect
Zephyrhills spent an entire football season underestimated because of the lack of numbers on its sideline, but the Bulldogs made plenty of believers with a stunning 24-21 upset of undefeated Wesley Chapel in October.
The Wildcats hadn't lost since November 2000, a run of 17 regular-season games. The Bulldogs were stretched ridiculously thin with 25 players on the roster, including eight two-way starters.
Zephyrhills would go on to validate that win -- and then some -- by beating Pasco to clinch the school's second-ever district title. In the playoffs, the Bulldogs held off a tough Bartow team for the school's second-ever playoff win before losing in the second round to Jesuit.
On Oct. 4, however, there was no stopping the Bulldogs, who got a key touchdown with 17 seconds left in the first half on a double pass for a 24-14 lead. The Wildcats threatened in the second half, cutting the lead to three points and getting the ball on Zephyrhills' 19 after a snap sailed over the punter's head with two minutes left. The Bulldogs defense forced the Wildcats' third and final fumble of the night, enough to seal an upset that turned the eastside playoff picture upside-down.
Zephyrhills would open the playoffs and win; Wesley Chapel would have to travel to Bradenton and lose to a tough Southeast team. Most fitting, perhaps, was that the deciding margin that night came on a 40-yard field goal by senior Kyle Briscoe, who badly injured his leg later in the game and missed the next two months, watching most of a memorable season from the sideline.
5. Saddlebrook adds prestige
Even at a world-renowned sports academy such as Saddlebrook, state titles are rare enough to be savored.
The Spartans entered 2002 with two championships in their history, but matched that total in an impressive year that saw titles in boys tennis and golf.
At a time when the school was forced to decide if it wanted to make sacrifices in order to continue competing with public schools for those elusive state titles, the Spartans showed just how much the competition meant to them.
Both state titles were spearheaded by individual state crowns. Colombia's Jose Muguruza won the No. 1 singles title in tennis, and Chile's Martin Ureta earned medalist honors in golf. Muguruza did not drop a single set until the championship match, and Ureta shot an opening round 66 on the way to a one-stroke victory in Port St. Lucie.
The Florida High School Activities Association passed an amendment requiring all schools to field at least two teams in all three seasons to be eligible to compete for state titles, forcing Saddlebrook into a difficult decision.
In addition to golf and tennis, the Spartans decided they will field boys teams in basketball and soccer beginning next year, and while they won't win any state titles in those sports anytime soon, their mere participation in the winter season will allow Saddlebrook a chance to defend two other championships in its flagship sports in 2003.
4. Wildcats basketball
Who knew that four months after the football team went through its 2001 regular season undefeated, Wesley Chapel would be upstaged by its boys basketball team?
The Wildcats had the makings of a good team, but surprised even themselves with a run to the final four in Lakeland, a run one that took the level of sports interest on campus and around town to another level.
Getting there wasn't easy. First, there was an upset of No. 3 Immokalee, then a hard-fought 58-53 win at Avon Park in a hot arena packed with 1,100 fans, many in the Wildcats' blue and white. The state semifinal brought a humbling 80-53 loss to St. Augustine Nease, which would go on to win the Class 3A championship, but getting to Lakeland was an accomplishment in itself.
The Wildcats weren't just talented and gutsy but young as well. The team lost only two seniors -- point guard Spencer Honeycutt and reserve forward Sandor Riholm -- returning 13 players.
Guards Eric Sorensen and Zach Mills, both threats from 3-point range, are back for the Wildcats, as is the inside presence of 6-foot-2 David Simpson and 6-3 Marcus Felder, along with football star Tyrone Tomlin, who watched last season's playoff heroics from the bench after injuring his knee.
The Wildcats will go into the playoffs in 2003 with enough talent to make another run, but it would be hard to match the excitement of their first trip to the final four.
3. River Ridge softball
It wasn't a state championship, but it was quite possibly the closest a county team could ever come without winning a title. The only run of River Ridge's loss to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas came on the last play of the season, following the game's only error and its only extra-base hit.
The disappointing finish was the only thing that clouded a remarkable run by the Knights, whose commitment to the team was so unconditional that six seniors opted to skip a grad-night celebration at Disney World ... for a practice.
River Ridge was more than just hard-working, however. The Knights (31-3) had talent. Pitchers Christine Beck and Kiki Von Holt combined for nine shutouts and Beck, Stefanie Simon and Stephanie Seaman all hit over .400.
Coach Ernie Beck took his team farther than any county team since Ridgewood won a state crown in 1992, and he has reason to be confident about his chances in 2003. His daughter was one of six seniors to graduate, but younger talents await: Five freshmen were on his roster this season, including starters in Seamen and Danielle Denney.
With a strong senior class and Von Holt returning as a junior, the Knights are capable of returning to the Ed Radice Sports Complex this May. After coming within a run of winning a title, they certainly know what's within their reach.
2. Ridgewood baseball
Beetsball was supposed to be charming and successful on a local level. Ridgewood baseball coach Larry Beets taught his kids to win with hustle, well-placed bunts to advance runners and sound defense.
But as was the case with Wesley Chapel boys basketball and River Ridge softball, nothing could stop the Rams' wild postseason run to the final four at Legends Field. And once Ridgewood got there, not even a team ranked No. 1 in the nation would be too much to overcome.
The Rams' Cinderella season ended one win short of a state championship with a 13-0 loss to Jacksonville Bishop Kenny. But in reaching that title game, Beets and his players made believers out of many fans in and outside of Pasco County.
Senior ace Ronny Lowe won three games in the postseason, the most impressive a four-hit victory in a 3-1 win against undefeated Dunedin, which had been ranked No. 1 in the nation. Just to get to Legends took heroes from up and down the dugout: John Servidio's grand slam in the district tournament against Tarpon Springs; a clutch eighth-inning squeeze bunt by freshman Jon Koenigsfeld to beat Daytona Beach Seabreeze; and Richie Hittel overcoming a rough first inning to beat Ocala Forest on the road with his arm and his bat, with help from a Danny Lotz home run.
1. Six football playoff teams
Before 2002, the largest contingent of county football teams in the playoffs was three. Going into the season, there seemed to be enough talent to top that.
Zephyrhills and Land O'Lakes won district titles and Wesley Chapel locked up a berth of its own. But in the final two weeks, three more programs would join them in the postseason: Pasco, making its first trip in four years, and two westside teams making their playoff debuts. Ridgewood had never seen the postseason in 19 years, and Mitchell, despite a 4-6 record, found a way into the playoffs in the team's second varsity season.
Six playoff teams was wild enough, but what made the 2002 postseason all the more memorable was the way the county didn't disappear that first weekend as it had in the previous four Novembers. Zephyrhills rallied to beat Bartow for the second playoff win in school history, and Land O'Lakes, staked to homefield advantage by an undefeated regular season, had playoff games at Gator Stadium on three consecutive Fridays.
Zephyrhills' amazing run ended with a 41-14 loss to Jesuit, which would go on to the final four. But Land O'Lakes, led by the state's premier passing combo in quarterback Drew Weatherford and receiver Logan Payne, put the school's 1-10 playoff record in the past, going farther into the playoffs than any county team since Pasco's 1992 state championship team.
Weatherford and Payne, who had touchdowns in the final minute to beat Pasco and Wesley Chapel, would help the Gators to playoff victories against Ocala Vanguard and Merritt Island. When Land O'Lakes' unprecedented run finally ended, it came at the hands of a nationally ranked Melbourne Palm Bay team that would roll to the Class 4A state championship.
Payne, who led the state in receptions and touchdown catches, will graduate, as will 15 other members of the Gators' district- and conference-championship squad. But Weatherford, who threw for a state-best 39 touchdowns and more than 2,500 yards, will return for his senior season with enough of a supporting cast to have fans hopeful for another memorable November at Land O'Lakes.
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2002: The Year in Review