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St. Petersburg Times' top 10 local sports stories of the year

1. Rays win the American League East

Strange that our pick for the best local sports story of the year didn't seem to be enjoyed as much as it should have been. While many local fans griped about the Rays' lack of hitting, groaned about Joe Maddon's managerial decisions and worried about the team's future, the Rays went out and made the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Making the playoffs in any sport is a challenge, but doing it in baseball's American League East is impressive. The Rays went head-to-head with the Yankees for pretty much the entire season, pulling away at the end thanks to two key victories in September at Yankee Stadium. The season ended in disappointing fashion with a five-game loss to Cliff Lee and the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, but it doesn't wipe out that Tampa Bay won its division, finished with the best record in the American League and the second-best record in all of the majors. Still, it seemed as if local fans spent more time using their hands for wringing than clapping.

2. Bucs' turnaround season

When coach Raheem Morris, below, talked about a race to 10 victories, most either laughed or rolled their eyes. Turns out, Morris' mantra was no joke. The Bucs jumped from three victories in 2009 to a winning season in 2010 and, despite a rash of injuries, made a serious push for a playoff spot behind young offensive stars Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. They turned out to be one of the surprise teams of the NFL and appear to be an elite team in the making. What turned out disappointing was how so many locals missed out on the story, at least half the time. For the first time in 13 years, the Bucs were blacked out on local television and, it turned out, none of the team's eight home games were seen locally.

3. Urban Meyer resigns

For the second year in a row, the Gators football coach resigned. But unlike last year when he changed his resignation to a leave of absence then returned almost immediately, Meyer looks as if he's done coaching, at least for a while. Whether it's health or family related, Meyer, 46, walked away from one of the premier coaching jobs in the country after an incredibly successful six-year run that included a 64-15 record and two national championships. Just as surprising as Meyer's resignation was how quickly Florida replaced him, naming Texas defensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp less than a week after Meyer's resignation.

4. New Lightning regime

The Lightning's long nightmare came to an end when former co-owners and wing nuts Oren Koules and Len Barrie sold the team to Boston businessman Jeff Vinik. Any change appeared to be a good change, but this turned out better than expected as Vinik pried hockey legend Steve Yzerman, above, away from the Red Wings to be general manager and hired well-respected sports executive Tod Leiweke to be the CEO. Yzerman then dipped into the junior hockey ranks to hire the innovative Guy Boucher, whose high-tempo style has the Lightning firmly entrenched in the playoff pack. Led by sensation Steven Stamkos and veteran Marty St. Louis, the Lightning is on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and only two years removed from being dead last in the NHL.

5. Longoria, Price call out Rays fans/stadium issue

Rays fans are used to the rest of the country taking shots at the team's poor attendance, but many were particularly stung when two of the Rays' biggest stars joined in the bashing. Late in September, the Rays had a chance to clinch the second postseason spot in team history with a victory at the Trop, but only 12,446 showed up to watch. Ace pitcher David Price used his Twitter account to question the low crowd, and team star Evan Longoria went out of his way to bring up the topic to the media. The Rays responded days later by giving away 20,000 tickets. The week only renewed the debate about whether Tampa Bay can support a franchise and the prospects of building a new stadium somewhere in the area.

6. Skip Holtz hired at USF

At the start of the year, USF fired the only football coach it had ever had when it dismissed Jim Leavitt after he allegedly slapped a Bulls player. That incident and Leavitt's firing still are being battled out in the court system, but USF wasted little time in moving on and made quite a splash in hiring Skip Holtz, son of coaching legend Lou Holtz. The younger Holtz had successful runs at Connecticut and East Carolina and had a decent debut season with the Bulls. USF went 7-5 during the regular season, including the program's first victory against Miami.

7. The breakup of the Rays

Rays fans knew the team was going to be partially broken up after the 2010 season, but it was still a punch to the gut when star leftfielder Carl Crawford signed with, of all teams, the hated Red Sox. Carlos Peña, meantime, left for the Cubs. Relievers Joaquin Benoit left for the Tigers. Closer Rafael Soriano is going to sign somewhere, but that somewhere is not Tampa Bay. It's all part of the Rays' master plan to slash payroll to build for future seasons. Unfortunately, slashing payroll is not ideal for winning the mighty and rich American League East. It's only one day into January and it already feels like it's going to be a long baseball season in Tampa Bay.

8. Florida State's comeback season

A year ago at this time, the Seminoles football program was a bit of a mess. It had been 10 years since the team finished the season ranked in the top 10. It was coming off a 7-6 season and coach Bobby Bowden, the man who essentially built the FSU football program, was being shoved out in a messy parting. Furthermore, not everyone was convinced that Jimbo Fisher, who had never been a head coach at the college level, was capable of revitalizing the program. But the Seminoles went 9-4, including an appearance in the ACC Championship Game, before moving on to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Suddenly, FSU looks to be the most stable college football team in the state.

9. USF makes NIT tournament

For a lot of college basketball programs, going 20-13 with a 9-9 conference record and an invitation to the NIT is a disappointing season. But when you're USF and competing in the brutally tough Big East and you've enjoyed little success in your history, that kind of season is reason for celebration. Led by scoring machine Dominique Jones, the Bulls upset Pitt and Georgetown on their way to a respectable, better-than-it-sounds ninth-place finish in the 16-team Big East. Narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament, the Bulls went to the NIT for the first time since 2002.

10. Three football teams in state finals

Getting one local high school team into a state championship game in football-rich Florida is quite the accomplishment. Getting three in the state finals shows just how good football is in Hillsborough County. Jefferson, Plant and Armwood made it to the final game and even though only Jefferson came away with a state championship, 2010 will go down as one of the strongest seasons in Hillsborough County prep football history.

Here are our picks for the top 10 local sports stories in 2010.

St. Petersburg Times' top 10 local sports stories of the year 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 7:02pm]
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