Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Jones: 2017 was an unusually crazy year in Tampa Bay sports

Last year was a crazy year in sports in Tampa Bay. More so than usual.

We had really good, so good that some are dreaming of a Stanley Cup.

We had really bad, so bad that people lost jobs.

And really ugly, so ugly that more people might lose jobs.

We’re welcoming new faces (Dan Mullen) and familiar ones (Willie Taggart), and saying goodbye to a Tampa Bay legend.

Yep, it was crazy.

Let’s look back at the year in Tampa Bay sports:

Biggest story

If I had told you a year ago today that Jimbo Fisher and Jim McElwain would no longer be coaching in the state by the end of 2017, would you have believed it? No one saw this coming, a complete meltdown of the mighty football programs at Florida State and Florida that led to the firing of McElwain (replaced by Mullen) and Fisher leaving for Texas A&M (replaced at FSU by former USF coach Taggart). We used to brag about how the best college football in the country was played in the state. It might be quite a while before we can say that again.

Biggest disappointment

From Hard Knocks to a hard-knock life. Man, what happened to the Bucs? They went from being a playoff favorite to an absolute mess. It’s now 10 straight nonplayoff seasons and counting, and the Bucs are right alongside the likes of the Browns as an NFL laughingstock.

Happiest hello

Few around here knew who Mikhail Sergachev was when the Lightning acquired the 19-year-old defenseman from the Canadiens for enigmatic forward Jonathan Drouin last summer. Now everyone knows who he is: a candidate for NHL rookie of the year.

Saddest goodbye

The Rays traded the best player they have ever had. The franchise stunk before Evan Longoria got here in 2008 and likely will stink now that he’s gone. Longoria, traded to the Giants last month, had a hand in pretty much every good thing the Rays have done. His homer in Game 162 of the 2011 season to get the Rays in the playoffs is one of Tampa Bay’s best sports moments. He hasn’t been gone a month and we already miss him. Runnerup: The Lightning trading goalie Ben Bishop.

Biggest under-the-radar sad moment

It’s hard to believe the Storm came here in 1991. It was one of those franchises we never paid much attention to but were always glad was there. And we could brag because it won five Arena Football League championships and more games than any team in league history. But now it is gone, at least for the time being, announcing last month it is ceasing operations indefinitely. Dang, I was going to go a game next season, too.

Best oh-my-gosh moment

Gators basketball star Chris Chiozza drained a three-pointer at the buzzer against Wisconsin to send Florida to the NCAA basketball tournament’s Elite Eight. And he did it on the big stage of Madison Square Garden.

Best game

Our little backyard rivalry between USF and UCF became a really big deal. Their game the day after Thanksgiving captivated the nation and was the best college football game of 2017. It was the most-watched American Athletic Conference game ever and was an instant classic. In the game’s last three minutes there were three scores in 53 seconds, including a Knights 95-yard kickoff return with 1:28 left that gave them a 49-42 win.

Worst game

Not only did FSU lose its football season opener against Alabama, the Seminoles lost their quarterback, Deondre Francois, for the season with a knee injury. Next thing you know, they lost their coach and recruiting class. And their spot among the nation’s elite.

Best team

I was going to say UCF football or UF basketball. But how about recognition for the under-recognized? A special nod to the state champion Land O’ Lakes softball team, but our team of the year is hard to beat. In fact, it didn’t get beaten. Calvary Christian went undefeated in winning a state baseball championship. Perfection in any sport is impressive. In baseball, it’s downright unbelievable.

Best news (maybe)

Hillsborough County says it has a site for a new Rays stadium in Ybor City. Sounds great, but I’ll believe it when I see someone digging with a shovel.

Best coach

You know who is really good, really consistent and goes unnoticed? USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez. He is on his way to another NCAA Tournament bid this season.

Best owner

No brainer: Lightning boss Jeffrey Vinik. And it ain’t even close.

Best executive

No brainer: Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman. And it ain’t even close.

Best hospitality

The Rays opened the Trop to the Astros, who were forced out of Houston for a series at the end of August because of Hurricane Harvey. The Astros went on to win the World Series, meaning we should hang a banner at the Trop, right? Runnerup: Raymond James Stadium and Tampa doing a bang-up job hosting the college football national championship game in January.

And Tampa Bay’s sports person of the year …

USF quarterback Quinton Flowers. The greatest player in the USF history had another spectacular season. He finishes a remarkable career with 37 school records, including total offense for a career and a season, most rushing yards, most passing yards for a season, most touchdown passes for a season and most total touchdowns. More impressive, he was most responsible for leading the Bulls to a 21-4 record over the past seasons, including the only two double-digit-win seasons in school history. He was one of the most thrilling players in college football and will be remembered for a long, long time in these parts.

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