Nearly the best. The absolute worst. And somewhere in between. • That pretty much sums up 2015 in sports for Tampa Bay. • One of our teams went to the championship round. Another started its season as, officially, the worst team in its sport. And the other was in the middle, trying to find the winning formula it had just a couple of years ago. • In addition, a new face arrived in Gainesville and a familiar one left. • So with that in mind, here's a look at the top 10 local sports stories of 2015.
1. The Lightning reaches the Stanley Cup final
For only the fourth time in major sports history, a Tampa Bay team reached the final of its sport as the Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup final for the second time in franchise history. Led by the shutout goaltending of Ben Bishop, the Lightning survived Game 7 victories over the Red Wings in the first round and the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final. In between, it knocked out the tradition-rich Canadiens. A season marked by the special play of captain Steven Stamkos and the Triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov finally came to an end with a tight six-game series loss to the Blackhawks. The architect of the team, Steve Yzerman, was voted the NHL's GM of the year.
2. Bucs draft Jameis Winston
After finishing an NFL-worst 2-14 last season, the Bucs had the No. 1 pick in the draft and had to choose between quarterbacks Jameis Winston of FSU and Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Brushing aside questions about Winston's off-field behavior and character, the Bucs went with Winston, who has had a solid season on and away from the playing field. Maybe someday we will look back and determine that this was the biggest local sports story of 2015, but for now those in Tampa Bay can only hope that Winston can do what the Lightning did: reach the championship round.
3. Steven Stamkos' contract
The Lightning and its fans weren't able to celebrate last season for long when the frightening possibility of its best player leaving set in. With Steven Stamkos set to become an unrestricted free agent after this season, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said his No. 1 priority was to sign Stamkos. Here we are, six months later, and Stamkos remains unsigned. Lightning faithful are becoming more and more nervous as rumors heat up that he might, uh, like going to his hometown of Toronto to play.
4. Billy Donovan leaves Florida
The best basketball coach in University of Florida history and one of the most accomplished college basketball coaches ever, Billy Donovan, finally made the leap to the NBA, leaving the Gators to take over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Back in 2007, Donovan flirted with the NBA, even going as far as taking the Magic job for a few days before backing out. While at Gainesville, Donovan won two national titles and reached four Final Fours and eight Sweet 16s. He also won four SEC regular-season titles and three SEC tournament championships. This time around, he did not change his mind and is off to a good start in the NBA.
5. Rays trade a fan favorite
You could make a good argument that Ben Zobrist is the most popular player in Rays history. He played with class, grace and tireless effort. He would play anywhere, bat anywhere, do whatever it takes and do it without complaint or fanfare. And because of all that, not only was he a fan favorite but one of the best players in franchise history. With Zobrist eventually headed to free agency and the Rays starting to rebuild, they regretfully traded Zobrist to the A's. Even Matt Silverman, the man who made the trade, said the deal was hard to stomach. "He epitomizes the Rays brand of baseball,'' Silverman said.
6. Gators football is back to winning
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Florida football. New coach Jim McElwain (above) was taking over for the fired Will Muschamp, who told everyone, "Don't let the new guy tell you he ain't got no good players.'' Aside from wrecking the English language, maybe Muschamp was right. McElwain led the Gators to a 10-1 start and the SEC East title. Had the Gators not lost quarterback Will Grier to a PED suspension, they might have snuck into the college playoffs. Still, Florida football appears back under McElwain.
7. Chris Archer pitches in All-Star Game
The Rays had an up-and-down 80-win season under first-year manager Kevin Cash. The brightest spot for Tampa Bay and a pitching staff beset by injuries to Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore was the emergence of Chris Archer, who won 12 games and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. The highlight of the season for the Rays ace, however, was in July when he appeared in the MLB All-Star Game. He allowed a homer to Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen but popped 97 mph on the radar gun during his 1 ⅓ innings of work.
8. USF goes bowling
After the USF football team started 1-3, there were rumors that coach Willie Taggart's job was in jeopardy. The next thing you know, he is being interviewed for a bigger job at South Carolina. USF is fortunate because Taggart is staying. The Bulls rallied from the slow start to win seven of their last eight in the regular season, including an upset of ranked Temple, and qualify for the Miami Beach Bowl, USF's first bowl appearance since 2010. The Bulls lost their bowl game to finish 8-5, but the future looks bright.
9. Jordan Spieth wins Valspar
Who needs Tiger? The Valspar Championship at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor has never attracted the world's most famous golfer. But it has brought in one of the world's best. Jordan Spieth, then 21, won the Valspar back in March, and that set up a fabulous 2015 that featured victories at the Masters and the U.S. Open and near misses at the British Open and PGA Championship.
10. Tampa hosts history
Tampa's Amalie Arena was the site for history in April when UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma won his 10th national title, tying him with former UCLA's men's coach John Wooden. Auriemma's Huskies knocked off Notre Dame as star player Breanna Stewart continued her quest to become the most decorated college player ever. She has three national titles and counting. Amalie Arena hosts another championship this spring with hockey's Frozen Four.