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The Top 10 sports stories of 1998

One is a superhero. One uses a wheelchair. One is a twin, and so is another one. One, we're afraid, idolizes professional wrestler Ric Flair. And one lay flat at Tampa/Houlihan's Stadium even longer than Vinny Testaverde.

What do they have in common? All are in attendance in the Top 10 in sports for North of Tampa in 1998. Other than that, all have in common a great competitive spirit, a drive to be the best, an undying passion for sport.

Well, except for the stadium turf, that is. I mean, come on. It's grass.

Here, in roughly chronological order, is the list:

FROM OUT OF NOWHERE: Wharton High's boys basketball team went on a phenomenal run in its first season, 1997-98. But in the spring, fellow first-year Sickles had an even more dominant team of its own.

At the Citrus Park Little League, this was not unexpected. But when the Sickles softball squad reached the Class 5A state final four in its first year, opponents from Pensacola to Miami were stunned.

They didn't know this young group _ no seniors, and just one junior _ had refined into a top-notch crew as youth players and were ready to roll under the leadership of coach Tammy Overcash. In May, Sickles lost 2-0 to perennial power Naples Lely in the semifinal at Auburndale. But the Gryphons finished the season 20-7.

IT'S DeTRUTH: Ryler DeHeart doesn't come from one of the state's top tennis academies. He just plays incredible tennis. And over the summer, the teen, who plays at Carrollwood and lives east of Lake Magdalene, proved his worth against opponents with far greater pedigrees.

DeHeart, who has played the game seriously only five years, earned the under-14 state title with a 6-2, 7-5 victory over Dillon Brozyna. The victory propelled him to improved state and national rankings, and he plans to make a mark this year as a freshman at Jesuit.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Largo United's under-16 girls team, a competitive club program, is a state champion and one of the best teams in the Southeast. Impressive credentials, but the team gets much of its top play from a pair of twins from Forest Hills.

Dana Hemke, a center midfielder, and sister Diana, a wing forward, helped propel the team to the Southern Regional tournament in June.

Their sensational synergy was displayed at the State Cup: In the first game, Dana scored the first goal, Diana scored the second, and Dana scored the third off a drop pass from Diana. In the second game, Dana again scored first, and Diana second.

LET'S SEE YOU TRY IT: John Clewis will never be the fastest swimmer at Wharton High, but he's getting faster all the time. And considering that the sophomore is paralyzed from the waist down, he's pretty quick as it is.

Clewis, who was born with spina bifida and has no motion or feeling in his lower body, was invited to join the boys swim team by coach Marcie Scholl, who was impressed by his upper body strength. Despite some exhausting workouts in fall practices, Clewis stayed with the program, became a regular contributor at meets and scored points for his team.

TOUGH TURF: The turf at Houlihan's Stadium had been named the best in the NFL. But once the Buccaneers relocated to Raymond James Stadium, it was headed for new pastures. And in October, much of the turf became new fields for the New Tampa Soccer Association fields. The turf was laid at Benito Middle School on Cross Creek Boulevard.

The fields were the result of a joint effort by the soccer association, Hillsborough County schools and the city of Tampa parks and recreation department. About 1,000 youths play in the organization, which now has nine fields.

THIS IS NO JOKER: Wharton High's second-year football team wasn't showing much improvement over its first year. That bothered Richard "Batman" Wood, a former Buccaneers linebacker who came on as the team's defensive coordinator.

Soon, Wood had an opportunity to change that. Head coach Dan Acosta was dismissed two games into the season and Wood was named interim head coach. Though the team still got beat much of the season, it did earn its first victory. Wood remains a candidate for the permanent position.

GRYPHONS GO WILD(CAT): This wasn't the first year the Sickles High football team beat its rival for the Times Cup, but it was, well, the second. More important, this October victory was the most commanding.

The 45-0 rout showed how far the Gryphons program had come in a year (pretty far) and how much Wharton had progressed (not much). It also put a damper on a Wildcats team coming off its first victory, 7-0 over Blake.

Sickles' standouts included quarterback Luke Ewalt, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for another in the first half. Andrew Wilson had two touchdowns and Terry Rodriguez was dominant on defense and special teams.

REVENGE OF THE REFS: Despite missing top player Ricky Sailor, the Falcons football team came up with an incredible 20-17 upset of Hillsborough in a November game that determined the 6A-District 5 championship, only Leto's second in its 33-year history.

But even more incredible was the end: After Bryan Drayne kicked the go-ahead field goal, one second remained on the clock. Leto kicked off to Hillsborough, and after a series of laterals and fumbles, Hillsborough's Keith Williams ended up with the ball and ran into the end zone to score the winning touchdown with no time left.

Or so it seemed. The referees huddled, then ruled that several Hillsborough players ran onto the field before Williams crossed the goal line. Leto had new life and kicked again, and this time Hillsborough fumbled out of bounds.

NOW THE TEAM'S EVEN YOUNGER: After three seasons led to a 5-25 record, capped by a 1-9 mark in 1998, it was clear Gaither football coach Gary Hallauer was not long for his job. The call came in November, shortly after season's end.

Defections, dismissals and injuries so took their toll on the Cowboys that most were freshmen and sophomores at the end, and the team lost its last seven games by a combined score of 360-14. The school will begin interviewing for a replacement soon.

THIS IS MORE LIKE IT: Okay, so football wasn't too hot. But Gaither's boys soccer team took the field in December and made everyone forget the stadium's previous tenant.

Under head coach (and pro wrestling fanatic) Adrian Bush, Gaither opened the season 12-0, including victories over two teams ranked No. 1 in the state. That led to the Cowboys earning their own No. 1 ranking, only the school's second in history (softball earned the first one, and a state title to boot).

A subsequent victory over Hillsborough _ Bush's alma mater _ earned Gaither records for the school's best start and longest win streak, and they followed that with a victory over St. Thomas Aquinas, who was ranked No. 1 in the nation.

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