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Recalling the most heartwarming Tampa Bay sports stories of 2023

Some stories delivered poignance, others sheer elation. And some delivered both.
 
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao, baby-blue shirt in the middle, celebrates with his team after a 28-20 victory over Miami Norland in the Class 2M state final. It was the first state title for Ciao, who has coached 34 years, 17 at Berkeley and 17 at Jesuit.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao, baby-blue shirt in the middle, celebrates with his team after a 28-20 victory over Miami Norland in the Class 2M state final. It was the first state title for Ciao, who has coached 34 years, 17 at Berkeley and 17 at Jesuit. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 25, 2023

Seems 2023 is fading to bliss. The Bucs have propelled themselves to the brink of the postseason, the Lightning seem to have found their footing, and USF football is relevant again.

So why not keep that uplifting spirit percolating.

We’re recalling the area’s most heartwarming sports stories of 2023. These aren’t necessarily the most significant moments of the calendar year, just the sweetest. The ones that elicited a hearty grin and/or even a goosebump.

We’ve listed them chronologically instead of ranking them because poignance has no pecking order.

A goal amid the grief

Lightning left wing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) points skyward after his goal against the Kings during the first period against the Kings on Jan. 28. Bellemare's goal came in his second game since the death of his mother to cancer.
Lightning left wing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) points skyward after his goal against the Kings during the first period against the Kings on Jan. 28. Bellemare's goal came in his second game since the death of his mother to cancer. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

The most bittersweet entry on our list. Lightning veteran Pierre–Edouard Bellemare willed his way through the 2022-23 season even as his mother, Frederique, battled cancer in her native France. In his second game following Frederique’s death in late January, Bellemare scored in a 5-2 triumph against the Kings.

He pointed to the sky after scoring, but was somber afterward. Bellemare, who earlier in the season had set an NHL record for career games by a Frenchman, ultimately became the Lightning’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport.

The ultimate victory lap

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling shares a moment with her son, Jeff, prior to the 2023 15-kilometer race. Jeff Harmeling, who annually drove the race's media truck, made his first appearance at the event since nearly dying in a freak collision on a softball field nearly two years before.
Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling shares a moment with her son, Jeff, prior to the 2023 15-kilometer race. Jeff Harmeling, who annually drove the race's media truck, made his first appearance at the event since nearly dying in a freak collision on a softball field nearly two years before. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Before the Gasparilla Distance Classic commenced at dawn on Feb. 25, Jeff Harmeling capped a personal odyssey more formidable than any 15K. The longtime driver of the race’s media truck, and son of executive director Susan Harmeling, Jeff Harmeling made his first appearance at the event since nearly dying in a freak collision on a Tallahassee softball field nearly two years before.

The ensuing ordeal included brain hemorrhages, extensive rehab and exhausting physical therapy, making his return to the race a triumph in itself. Jeff Harmeling, who rode in a lead car last February, hopes to return behind the wheel of the media truck in 2024.

Point hits half-century mark

Lightning center Brayden Point (21) celebrates with the bench after scoring one of his two third-period goals against the Red Wings on April 13. The goals were the 50th and 51st of the season for Point, who became only the third Lightning player to reach the 50-goal mark in a season.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) celebrates with the bench after scoring one of his two third-period goals against the Red Wings on April 13. The goals were the 50th and 51st of the season for Point, who became only the third Lightning player to reach the 50-goal mark in a season. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

Lightning veteran Brayden Point entered the April 13 regular-season finale against the Red Wings sitting on 49 goals and still was sitting there midway through the last period. By his own admission, the milestone had gotten into his head; Point had been pressing in an effort to become only the third Lightning player to hit the 50-goal mark in a season.

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But with 9:13 to play, fate put the puck in front of the net (a rebound opportunity off a Nikita Kucherov shot), and Point slid the puck inside the far post for No. 50. For good measure, he later scored No. 51 on an empty-netter in a 5-0 Tampa Bay romp.

Cross-country euphoria

Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) had arguably the busiest, and most blissful, all-star week of any big-leaguer in 2023.
Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz (2) had arguably the busiest, and most blissful, all-star week of any big-leaguer in 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

It’s doubtful any 2023 big-leaguer had a more exhausting — and exhilarating — All-Star week than Yandy Diaz. The Rays first baseman flew to Seattle for his first All-Star Game on July 10, then hit a solo home run in his first at-bat for the American League the following evening.

He then took a red-eye flight back home to be his wife, Mayisleidis, for the birth of their first child (a son also named Yandy) on July 12. “Pretty special,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Diaz’s whirlwind experience. “Pretty hectic.”

Rescue, reunion and a ring

Brad meets Janie Morales, center, moments after she was honored with a group of firefighters and paramedics on July 21, before the start of the game between the Rays and Orioles at Tropicana Field. Morales, an ultrasound technician with CPR training, provided life-saving chest compressions to Brad when he suffered a heart attack next to the Rays dugout during a game against the Rangers on June 9.
Brad meets Janie Morales, center, moments after she was honored with a group of firefighters and paramedics on July 21, before the start of the game between the Rays and Orioles at Tropicana Field. Morales, an ultrasound technician with CPR training, provided life-saving chest compressions to Brad when he suffered a heart attack next to the Rays dugout during a game against the Rangers on June 9. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Arguably the most powerful story emanating from Tropicana Field in 2023 began with a heart stopping. What followed was all heartwarming. Fate had placed Janie Morales, an ultrasound technician from Spring Hill with CPR training, in seats near the Rays dugout for a June 9 game. When a 65-year-old fan nearby collapsed, Morales began her first attempt at chest compression in a real-life situation. Her efforts restored his pulse by the time paramedics arrived.

Six weeks later, Morales was honored for her life-saving efforts by the Rays during an on-field ceremony that only got more stirring: The fan she rescued (who only would reveal his first name, Brad) stunned her with his appearance at the ceremony, setting up a tearful reunion. Later that night, Morales’ boyfriend, Ken Frey, proposed to her in a Trop suite. “This is the best day of my life,” Morales would say.

Canton, Cooperstown beckon

Hall of Fame inductee Fred McGriff reacts during a National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony July 23 in Cooperstown, New York.
Hall of Fame inductee Fred McGriff reacts during a National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony July 23 in Cooperstown, New York. [ BRYAN BENNETT | AP ]

With each passing year, the omission of Ronde Barber and Fred McGriff from their respective halls of fame elicited rising levels of disappointment — if not disgust — across the bay area. Yet in a surreal 13-day span this past summer, the pair formally transitioned from snubs to immortals.

Ronde Barber waves after receiving his jacket during the Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jacket dinner in Canton, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Ronde Barber waves after receiving his jacket during the Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jacket dinner in Canton, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) [ GENE J. PUSKAR | AP ]

McGriff, the Jefferson High alumnus who hit 493 home runs in a big-league career bereft of performance-enhancing speculation, was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 23. Less than two weeks later, Barber, who revolutionized the slot-corner position while playing 215 consecutive games for the Bucs, was enshrined in Canton.

Pathos, and a pick-six

Bucs offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs (78), right, celebrates with outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) moments after Barrett scored on a short interception return in the fourth quarter against the Bears on Sept. 17.
Bucs offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs (78), right, celebrates with outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) moments after Barrett scored on a short interception return in the fourth quarter against the Bears on Sept. 17. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Nearly five months after the accidental drowning death of 2-year-old daughter Arrayah, Bucs veteran edge rusher Shaquil Barrett still found himself periodically paralyzed by grief. And while his performance in Week 2 against the Bears hardly erased the anguish, it did provided momentary catharsis.

With barely two minutes remaining and his team leading the Bears by three, Barrett snagged a Justin Fields throw with his right arm and rambled into the end zone for a 4-yard pick-six in a 27-17 victory. “I always play for my family already,” Barrett said afterward. “But having, like, that extra incentive makes me want to go a little harder for her.”

Mother’s Day

Sandra Gonzalez, the mother of Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena, throws the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series against the Rangers Oct. 3 at Tropicana Field.
Sandra Gonzalez, the mother of Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena, throws the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series against the Rangers Oct. 3 at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

While the Rays’ futility in the 2023 postseason will remain seared in the fan base’s memory, it will have at least one heartwarming first pitch to fondly recall. Finally granted a visa to visit the United States (after years of trying), the mother of Rays rightfielder Randy Arozarena saw her son play in the majors for the first time when the Rays faced the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series opener.

Sandra Gonzalez, who defected to Mexico from Cuba around six years ago, threw out the first pitch and watched her son go 2-for-4 in the game. “It’s a really proud moment for me and my family.” Arozarena said through an interpreter.

Coach Tim’s comeback

Bloomingdale High junior varsity volleyball coach (and varsity assistant) Tim Rovnanik, right, speaks with the team after a game against Sickles on Oct. 9.
Bloomingdale High junior varsity volleyball coach (and varsity assistant) Tim Rovnanik, right, speaks with the team after a game against Sickles on Oct. 9. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

When longtime Bloomingdale volleyball assistant Tim Rovnanik suffered his second heart attack — requiring a quadruple bypass — in April, most in the Bulls community presumed the 64-year-old grandfather of three simply wouldn’t have the stamina to return to the sidelines that fall. Yet “Coach Tim” confounded them all.

With an external defibrillator affixed to his hip, Rovnanik regained weight and strength (in part via a daily walking regimen) and returned in time for the 2023 season, which ended with a Bulls appearance in the Class 6A final four. “I do it because I love being around the kids,” Coach Tim said. “They keep me going.”

A state title for Ciao

Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao gets a hug from longtime friend and assistant James Harrell after the Buccaneers' 28-20 victory over Miami Norland in the Class 2M state final on Dec. 9 in Tallahassee.
Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao gets a hug from longtime friend and assistant James Harrell after the Buccaneers' 28-20 victory over Miami Norland in the Class 2M state final on Dec. 9 in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

A 70-year-old local prep football icon, Berkeley Prep coach Dominick Ciao didn’t need a state title to validate his career, but oh how he wanted one. So did legions of Ciao peers and former players, who yearned to see him fill the lone void on his otherwise glistening resume.

The Buccaneers (13-2) delivered for their coach on Dec. 9, seizing a series of Miami Norland miscues and churning out 274 rushing yards in a 28-20 upset in the Class 2M title game in Tallahassee. “We did it for him,” Buccaneers senior Nikhil Jefferson said.

From walk-on to wideout extraordinaire

USF fifth-year veteran Sean Atkins, a former walk-on, recorded the first 1,000-yard receiving season in program history in 2023.
USF fifth-year veteran Sean Atkins, a former walk-on, recorded the first 1,000-yard receiving season in program history in 2023. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Arguably no USF player epitomized the Bulls’ stunning rags-to-relevance story more than fifth-year receiver Sean Atkins. A one-time walk-on who spent his first four seasons balancing football with full-time jobs, Atkins committed himself to his craft in 2023 and recorded the only 1,000-yard receiving season in program history.

The capper: a six-catch, 93-yard performance, two-touchdown performance in the Bulls’ 45-0 Boca Raton Bowl rout of Syracuse. “He’s a direct reflection of his process,” USF coach Alex Golesh said.

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