July 19, 2024


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Fall season offers exciting local sports action

The fall sports season is here, and there’s plenty of action on tap across The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.

Here’s a closer look at some notable storylines, events and other local happenings these next few months.

The Gaither Cowboys are poised to be one of the Tampa Bay area’s top football teams this year. (Courtesy of Gaither High School Athletics Department)

Which area prep football program will reign supreme?
Fall is synonymous with football — particularly the Friday night lights variety in many communities and small towns. There are about 15 high schools in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Several of those football programs are expected to have successful, winning campaigns in 2021.

Deciding which program is best is difficult, considering varying school sizes and classifications. However, it might be wise to pay close attention to the Gaither Cowboys (7A), Wiregrass Ranch Bulls (7A), Zephyrhills Bulldogs (5A) and Zephyrhills Christian Warriors (2A).

By year’s end, one or more of these programs could be showing gaudy records and an appearance in the state series for its respective classification.

Of course, winning an FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) 11-man football title is extremely elusive. The last local program to do so was the Pasco Pirates some three decades ago — back in 1992 when they downed Tampa Jesuit 28-16 in the 3A state championship at the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

If you can catch just one regular-season game in person this season, check out the 64th edition of the 9-Mile War between rivals Pasco and Zephyrhills. This year’s contest is set for Nov. 5, at Bulldog Stadium at Zephyrhills High School. Pasco leads the all-time series, 41-22.

The Bishop McLaughlin Hurricanes varsity volleyball program has had an incredible three-year run. All that eludes them is a state title. (Courtesy of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School Athletics Department)

Bishop McLaughlin volleyball expects to remain elite
The Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School varsity girls volleyball program has enjoyed one of the more dominant runs across any area sports program over the last three years — going 24-3 in 2020, 25-4 in 2019, and 30-1 in 2018, respectively.

The Hurricanes should again remain very competitive in the FHSAA’s Class 3A ranks, under longtime coach Doug Chinchar.

Despite the graduation of Florida Dairy Famers 3A state volleyball player of the year Audrey Koenig —now a freshman at Florida State University — the team returns several other All-State performers and Division I prospects. This includes junior outside hitter Maddie Snider (Florida State University verbal commit) and junior outside hitter Ali Waldon (Mercer University), among others.

What eludes the Hurricanes is a state crown. The program reached the state semifinals in 2020, the regional semifinals in 2019 and was state runner-up in 2018.

Will this be the year the Hurricanes are the last team standing in its class?

The Sunlake High boys cross country team finished state runner-up at last year’s Class 3A meet. (File)

Sunlake High cross-country keeps pushing the pace
The Sunlake High cross-country program looks to remain top dog among area schools.

The Seahawks boys squad finished second in the 3A state meet last season — representing the all-time best mark ever achieved by any Pasco County prep cross-country program.

The school’s girls squad performed well, too, posting a 10th-place finish at the state 2020 meet.

And, a majority of Sunlake’s top distance runners are expected to return.

Last season, there was only one senior among the boys team’s top seven runners and two seniors among the girls team’s top seven.

The Seahawks haven’t been complacent in the offseason, either. Athletes participated in a running camp at University of North Carolina-Asheville — which featured lots of challenging hills work.

Speaking of high school cross-country, pay attention to Land O’ Lakes resident Elli Black — a home-schooled student who runs for Tampa Cambridge Christian School. Black is coming off a second-place finish in the 1A girls state meet, posting 18:28.5, as a seventh-grader. She’s shaved several seconds off that mark since then.

Former Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell is leading the Pasco-Hernando State College’s upstart women’s soccer program. (File)

PHSC women’s soccer kicks off inaugural season
Pasco-Hernando State College launched a women’s soccer program earlier this summer, and will kick off its inaugural season in September.

The program is led by former Tampa Bay Rowdies head coach Stuart Campbell, a familiar face and widely known figure in the soccer ranks. The English-born Campbell played professional soccer from 1996 to 2013, before serving as the assistant coach for the Rowdies from 2014 to 2015 and head coach from 2015 to 2018.

Women’s soccer marks PHSC’s first new sport since 2005 — when it brought on women’s cross-country, under head coach Jackie Wachtel.

PHSC joins four other NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) women’s soccer programs in the state — Polk State, Daytona State, Eastern Florida State, and Asa College.

The upstart program had open tryouts in late June at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, in Wesley Chapel.

As for the style of play, players and fans can expect lots of action and high-scoring affairs, under Campbell’s tutelage.

Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Gabriel Fortier is expected to highlight the 2021 NHL Prospect Showcase at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel. (Courtesy of Tampa Bay Lightning media relations)

AdventHealth Center Ice to host 2021 NHL Prospect Showcase
Local hockey fans will get a taste of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) next generation of top-end talent later this month — in Pasco County no less.

AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel is the site of the 2021 NHL Prospect Showcase, to be held Sept. 18 through Sept. 21.

Hosted by the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the event will welcome prospect teams from the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers.

All four teams will play each other once over the four-day showcase.

Any skater or goaltender in each of the four organizations on an entry-level contract (or less), provided they are 24 years old or younger and have less than 20 games of NHL experience, are eligible to participate in the showcase.

Teams will dress 18 skaters and two goaltenders for each contest. Games are regulation length with three 20-minute periods. A five-minute, three-on-three overtime period will determine a winner if games are tied after regulation. Games will conclude with a five-player-per-team shootout regardless of the final score.

The Lightning roster will include a number of the organization’s top prospects, including 2018 second-round draft pick Gabriel Fortier, who recorded six goals and 10 points in 30 games last season for the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.

Also participating for the Bolts is a pair of 2020 second-round draft selections in forwards Jack Finley and Gage Goncalves, who each made their professional hockey debut with Syracuse last season.

Meanwhile, three of Tampa Bay’s selections from the 2021 NHL Draft in July will be in attendance as well — defenseman Roman Schmidt (third round, No. 96 overall), forward Cameron MacDonald (fifth round, No. 160 overall) and forward Niko Huuhtanen (seventh round, No. 224 overall).

The contests will be open to the public. They’ll also be streamed live on TampaBayLightning.com.

Published September 01, 2021