Matt Garza's no hitter. Steven Stamkos' goal-scoring title. Josh Freeman's emergence. The 2010 year in Tampa Bay sports was marked by sterling accomplishments and compelling storylines.
There was jubilation - a pennant race, a playoff chase and a best-ever start in franchise history. Yet, through it all, good seats were available. A trio of Hillsborough County teams crashed the high school state football championships and a star quarterback broke Tim Tebow's prep records. Sadly, the community lost a cherished philanthropist and a beloved role model. There was controversy, too, as the University of South Florida fired its first head football coach. Even more surprising, the Bulls basketball team made a Big East splash. All of it happened in 2010 - a remarkable sports year in Tampa Bay.
A season to remember II
Two years after introducing area fans to the high drama of a tight pennant race, the Tampa Bay Rays captured their second AL East title in another classic. Manager Joe Maddon's club battled the defending world champion Yankees neck and neck, taking the division on the season's final day. Along the way, pitcher David Price, third baseman Evan Longoria and left fielder Carl Crawford were All-Star starters, and Matt Garza threw the franchise's first no-hitter. Longoria and Crawford won the third and fourth Gold Gloves in franchise history, and Price, with a franchise-record 19 wins, finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. Incongruently, the Rays came within an out of becoming the first team ever no-hit three times in nine-inning games. It was hardly a shock the Rays' season-long offensive inconsistency doomed them in their division-round loss to the Rangers.
These kids were alright
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were mired in 1-12 futility toward the end of 2009, it looked as though the franchise might be headed for a long period of losing. Then coach Raheem Morris' young team finished with a couple of nice wins, one over the eventual Super Bowl champions, that served as a springboard to the Bucs becoming one of the NFL's biggest surprises in 2010. Despite key injuries and numerous off-field problems, Tampa Bay entered the final week of the season at 9-6 with an outside chance of making the playoffs. Morris, general manager Mark Dominik, quarterback Josh Freeman and receiver Mike Williams emerged as rising stars. The youngest team in the NFL, the Bucs were the first since the NFL-AFL merger to start at least 10 rookies during a season and post a winning record.
Empty seats abound
Stadium attendance was an explosive issue. The Rays ranked 24th among the 30 Major League teams in attendance, averaging 23,024 fans, despite winning the American League's toughest division. The resurgent Bucs were the only one of the NFL's 32 teams to have every home telecast blacked out. When Evan Longoria and David Price called out fans after a poorly attended key game in late September, fan reaction was so fervent the Rays gave away 20,000 tickets to the final regular-season home game. As a result of poor attendance, however, Rays owner Stu Sternberg was committed to slashing payroll for 2011, leading to the offseason departures of franchise mainstay and fan favorite Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142-million contract with the rival Boston Red Sox.
Community leaders lost
Two of the Bay area's most influential leaders died in 2010: George Steinbrenner and Abe Brown. Associated first and foremost with New York, Yankees owner Steinbrenner also was a larger-than-life figure in his adopted hometown of Tampa. The Boss's death July 14 at age 80 of a heart attack was a blow to a Tampa Bay community that knew him as a philanthropist and avid supporter of local athletics, USF, the University of Tampa and countless other local entities. Steinbrenner was blustery and controversial during his 37 years of Yankees ownership, but Tampa Bay saw mostly his softer side. Similarly, few had as significant an impact on the Tampa community as Brown. A mentor of former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, Brown was an educator, coach, pastor, prison evangelist and community servant before dying of cancer in September at 83. Abe Brown Ministries, founded in 1976, preaches to prisoners and operates transitional houses for ex-felons and outreach programs for families of offenders.
Controversy at USF
Jim Leavitt, the only coach the University of South Florida's football program knew for its first 13 seasons, was fired on Jan. 8 after a school investigation concluded he grabbed walk-on player Joel Miller by the throat and hit him during halftime of a Nov. 21, 2009 game and later lied about it. Leavitt, who guided the Bulls into the Big East Conference and a brief stop at No. 2 in the rankings in 2007, hired lawyers to help him get his job back, but by then, USF had zeroed in on Skip Holtz as its next coach. Holtz's first team showed promise, going 7-5 with a win at Miami to earn a Meineke Car Care Bowl berth against Clemson.
Bold new leadership
Early results suggest March 5, 2010 will be remembered as a very good day for the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman introduced Boston financial wiz Jeff Vinik as the team's new owner. Vinik purchased the Lightning from financially strapped and quarreling co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, who had the team for less than two years. Vinik instantly restored hockey credibility, hiring respected Steve Yzerman from the Red Wings as general manager and plucking a hot young coach in Guy Boucher. Thanks to the best start in franchise history, the Lightning were battling the Washington Capitals for the Southeast division lead at year's end.
Three in, one wins
For the first time since 1969 and only the second time ever, three Hillsborough County high school football teams advanced to state championship games. Jefferson beat Miami Norland for the 3A title, while Plant and Armwood lost in the 5A and 4A finals, respectively. Jefferson's first state title in any sport came largely because of quarterback Quentin Williams, who was named Florida's Mr. Football after surpassing Tim Tebow and others as the most prolific passer in state high school history. Plant began the season ranked No. 1 in 5A, received national exposure in a televised loss at Abilene, Texas, and had top recruits James Wilder, Tony Posada and Phillip Ely commit to Florida State, Michigan and Alabama, respectively.
At last, one of their own
The Rays had four no-hitters, including two perfect games, thrown against them during their 13-year history before Matt Garza gave the franchise its first no-hitter July 26 in a 5-0 win against the Tigers. The up-and-down Garza was at his best, facing the minimum 27 batters while allowing only a second-inning walk.
Yes, he can play
After his brief tenure as Lightning coach in 2008, Barry Melrose said No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos wasn't ready for the NHL. But it didn't take Stamkos long to become one of the league's best offensive players. Stamkos had a breakout season in 2009-10, which included tying Penguins superstar Sydney Crosby for the Rocket Richard Trophy with a league-best 51 goals. Through nearly three months of the 2010-11 season, "Stammer" is again ranked near the top in goals and points.
No doormat this time
USF's men's basketball team, previously a non-factor in the Big East Conference, rose up and finished .500 in league play for the first time. Led by junior guard Dominique Jones, the Bulls upset then No.7-ranked Georgetown on the road and posted only the third 20-win season (20-13) in the program's 39-year history. Jones left one year early for the NBA and became the first USF player drafted in the first round, 25th overall by Memphis and then traded to Dallas.
Bay area athletes on the national, world stage
Several people with Bay area connections impacted the sports world during 2010:
Gene Chizik - The Pinellas County native coached Auburn to a 13-0 record and berth in the BCS National Championship game.
Stephen Garcia - The Jefferson high product quarterbacked South Carolina to a win at Florida and berth in the SEC title game.
Aric Almirola - The Hillsborough High grad finished second in NASCAR's Truck Series.
David Reutimann - The Zephyrhills native earned his first full-distance Sprint Cup victory at Chicagoland.
John Isner - The Saddlebrook resident won the longest Wimbledon match in history, 11 hours and five minutes.
Jim Courier - The Dade City product was named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team.
Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig - The pairs figure-skating teams, which trained in Ellenton, competed in the Vancouver Olympics. Denney lives in Wesley Chapel.