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‘GOAT’ to the ‘Stork’: Most indispensable athletes in Tampa Bay history

Face it, some team MVPs are more valuable than others. Here are the most priceless.
If the Lightning make history and become the second team in the salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, it will be because of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
If the Lightning make history and become the second team in the salary-cap era to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, it will be because of Andrei Vasilevskiy. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 14
Updated Yesterday

History has shown most championship teams spawned by the Tampa Bay area didn’t merely embrace the team concept, they bearhugged it.

The daunting defensive ensemble of the 2002 Buccaneers featured three Hall of Famers, with another solid candidate (Ronde Barber) waiting in the lobby. Similarly, the 2020 Rays relied on an assortment of unlikely stars (Randy Arozarena, Brett Phillips, Mike Brosseau) to reach the waning stage of the World Series.

But that’s not to dismiss the reality that many local title teams have featured one indispensable player. To suggest otherwise implies a few too many shots of avocado tequila. Here’s a look at a few of those indisputable MVPs (in alphabetical order), without whom their team’s chances would have been greatly diminished:

Tom Brady, Bucs, 2020

Eleven months after signing with the Bucs, 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady led them to a Super Bowl championship.
Eleven months after signing with the Bucs, 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady led them to a Super Bowl championship. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

No individual in the history of Tampa Bay team sports elevated his team to a higher plane than this middle-ageless wonder. When he slipped on a creamsicle practice jersey and trotted onto a Berkeley Prep practice field to lead a makeshift organized team activity last May, Brady set about altering the culture, consistency and confidence level of a previously middling franchise. Nine months later, the Bucs were world champions. Just a hunch, but we think the return of all 22 starters (and all three primary specialists) on that team has more to do with the “GOAT” than the Glazers.

Jose Fernandez, Alonso High baseball, 2011

Former Alonso High pitcher Jose Fernandez won 13 games on the mound and hit .404 with nine home runs to lead the Ravens to the Class 6A state title in 2011.
Former Alonso High pitcher Jose Fernandez won 13 games on the mound and hit .404 with nine home runs to lead the Ravens to the Class 6A state title in 2011. [ Times (2011) ]

Prior to being taken by the Marlins with the No. 14 overall selection in Major League Baseball’s 2011 first-year player draft, Fernandez posted one of the most dominant all-around seasons in Hillsborough County’s rich prep baseball history. Three years after defecting from Cuba with his family, the strapping 6-foot-3 right-hander went 13-1 with a 1.35 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 93 innings and hit .404 with nine home runs to lead Alonso to its second Class 6A state title in three seasons. A microcosm of Fernandez’s magnificence: a complete-game pitching performance and the winning homer — a two-run shot in the seventh inning — in the Ravens’ 7-5 state semifinal win over Park Vista. The smorgasbord of accolades Fernandez collected in the wake of that sparkling senior year included the Florida Mr. Baseball and Saladino awards. Five years later, he was killed in a predawn boat crash off the Miami Beach coast.

Dani Hofer, Palm Harbor University softball, 2004 and 2005

Palm Harbor University pitcher Dani Hofer tosses seven perfect games as a senior in 2005, leading the Hurricanes to a second consecutive state title.
Palm Harbor University pitcher Dani Hofer tosses seven perfect games as a senior in 2005, leading the Hurricanes to a second consecutive state title. [ Times (2005) ]

Arguably no player in team sports wields a greater effect on a game’s outcome than a dominant pitcher in fast-pitch softball. Hence the reason Hofer is quite possibly the most indispensable player on this list — including Brady. As a senior in 2005, she earned 25 wins for a 31-0 Hurricanes team, tossing seven perfect games and posting a 0.08 ERA as PHU won its second consecutive Class 5A crown. She graduated with 1,163 career strikeouts and 13 perfect games — fourth-most in national prep history at the time.

Sara Nevins, USF softball, 2012

USF's Sara Nevins pitches during an NCAA Super Region game vs. Hofstra.
USF's Sara Nevins pitches during an NCAA Super Region game vs. Hofstra. [ Times (2012) ]

A 6-foot left-hander from Pinellas Park High, Nevins was a flame-hurling force of nature during USF’s run to the 2012 Women’s College World Series. She won 31 games (third-most in a season in Bulls history) and established a USF single-season record for strikeouts (336), brandishing her clutch gene in a best-of-three Super Regional doubleheader on a steamy Saturday at home. After earning the win with a three-hit, five-inning relief effort against Hofstra in Game Two of the series, Nevins started Game Three, scattering three hits in 5.2 innings in a 2-1 Bulls triumph.

Terry Rupp, Jesuit boys basketball, 1984

Former Jesuit two-sport standout Terry Rupp, who later would play baseball and basketball at the University of Tampa, averaged a double-double while leading the 1984 Jesuit boys basketball team to the state title.
Former Jesuit two-sport standout Terry Rupp, who later would play baseball and basketball at the University of Tampa, averaged a double-double while leading the 1984 Jesuit boys basketball team to the state title. [ Times (1984) ]

A burly, 6-foot-6 senior leader and lightning rod, Rupp was so distraught following a last-second loss to No. 1-ranked Lakewood (in which he scored 38 points), he broke his hand punching a door. Without him, the Tigers struggled to stay at .500. When Rupp returned, about two weeks earlier than anticipated (after reportedly trying to cut off his cast with a hacksaw), Jesuit won 10 in a row and captured the Class 3A state title. Rupp, now the school’s athletic director, averaged 31 points and 15 rebounds that season, earning honorable mention Parade All-America honors.

Derek Smethurst, Rowdies, 1975

Derek Smethurst (12) scored 18 goals for the 1976 inaugural Rowdies team, which won the North American Soccer League title.
Derek Smethurst (12) scored 18 goals for the 1976 inaugural Rowdies team, which won the North American Soccer League title. [ Times (1976) ]

A veteran of the English Premier League, Smethurst signed to play for Tampa Bay’s 1975 expansion team in the new North American Soccer League as a way to stay in shape during the summer. That second job evolved into a sparkling second career for the “Stork,” the offensive catalyst for a Rowdies team that finished 19-6 and won an NASL title in its inaugural season. Smethurst’s 18 goals that year were more than twice as many as any other Rowdie; he also assisted on the first goal in a 2-0 win against Portland in the “‘75 Soccer Bowl” title match in San Jose, Calif.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning, 2020-21

While a constellation of stars led the Lightning to last year's Stanley Cup championship, none shined brighter than goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
While a constellation of stars led the Lightning to last year's Stanley Cup championship, none shined brighter than goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Yes, Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe, Brayden Point scored 14 goals and Nikita Kucherov had 34 points in last year’s Stanley Cup run. But none of it would have mattered if it weren’t for Vasilevskiy. This year, he’s elevated his game to the next level, and the Lightning have needed him to, because with all their talent, they’ve been pretty pedestrian when he’s not in the net (a 5-7-2 record). In fact, the Lightning have probably leaned on Vasilevskiy too much to pull them out of games this season. And after a fourth straight season of leading the league in wins and his league-leading 9.2 goalie point share (the number of points a player contributes by his play in net), if the Lightning make history and become the second team in the cap era to repeat, it will be because of Vasilevskiy.

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