A year ago this week, Malachi Wideman’s thunderous dunks at the City of Palms Tournament had whet our appetites for the year to come.
As it turned out, 2020 would be the mail-order fruitcake of years.
Despite the heartburn, great things still happened, and sports found a way to bring smiles to our faces. So in these shortest days of the longest year, here’s The Daily Sun‘s version of the 12 Days of Christmas, complete with no attempt to paraphrase the song. Just 12 stories from 2020 that had us all talking about something other than COVID-19, if only for a little while.
1. BRAVES COME TO TOWN
When the Atlanta Braves defeated Baltimore 5-0 on Feb. 22, it wasn’t the first Braves game at CoolToday Park, the team’s new spring training home, but it did mark the true beginning of the team’s 30-year relationship with the city of North Port. Locals got the chance to see the eventual National League East Division champions and root for a potential World Series matchup between the area’s two spring training squads.
2. LEMON BAY FOOTBALL
It was a strong year for high school football as Venice made a deep playoff run while Charlotte and Port Charlotte also saw some time in the postseason. But no area team had more to celebrate than the upstart Manta Rays, who stormed to an 8-1 regular season record, then steamrolled Lake Placid 42-6 for the school’s first playoff victory in 17 years.
3. GOODBYE, FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE
This is the only bummer on the list, but it’s a heck of a downer, to be sure. As a part of a minor league reorganization, Major League Baseball downsized its farm system from 160 teams to 120. Lost in the shuffle was the Charlotte Stone Crabs, who had been a part of the Charlotte County community since 2009. Attendance and an organizational unwillingness to put top prospects beneath the steamy Florida sun led the Tampa Bay Rays to shift their Low-A franchise to Charleston, S.C. Caught in the friendly fire was the North Port Fire Frogs, who never had a chance to play a game at CoolToday Park before the shuffle shipped them to Augusta.
4. WRESTLING STATE CHAMPS
On the wall at Charlotte High’s gym is a rather lengthy list of individual state champions in various sports. Among that list – many, many wrestlers. The Tarpons added a few more names to that list this past spring when Andrew Austin (113-pound weight class), Donovan Cataldi (132) and Lucas Willis (152) each stood atop the podium. It was the first for Austin, second for Cataldi and, amazingly, the fourth for Willis.
5. PEACE RIVER RALLY
In another classic installment of the Peace River Rivalry, Charlotte stormed back from a double-digit deficit with 17 points in the fourth quarter and won the game 31-28 on Tyler Amaral’s 28-yard field goal with less than 10 seconds remaining. The Pirates were trying to win a second-consecutive meeting for just the second time in rivalry history. Tarpons quarterback John Busha ensured that would not happen behind his 192 rushing yards and 264 passing yards. He also accounted for all four Charlotte touchdowns, three running and one passing.
6. A GREAT WEIGHT LIFTED
Yes, many a Charlotte wrestling state champion names can be found on the Tarpon gymnasium walls. So, too, will one be seeing Annabelle Anderson’s name. It was another dominating season for the Charlotte girls weightlifting team. Anderson was a key part of that, winning the Class 2A state title in the 129-pound division. She pushed up 170 pounds on the bench and ripped a 185-pound clean-and-jerk to win the crown by 10 pounds.
7. VENGEANCE IN VENICE
In 2019, St. Petersburg wrecked the Venice girls soccer team’s season in the regional championship. The team used that setback as motivation this past season and roared back into the playoffs on a mission. In a rematch with the Green Devils on Feb. 18, Venice prevailed, 1-0, on Mason Schilling’s late goal. The victory propelled Venice to a Final Four win and an appearance in the state title match, where they fell 2-1 at Lourdes Academy. Still … mission accomplished.
8. CARROLL’S 48
Valentine’s Day won’t really be remembered around Charlotte High as the day the boys basketball team lost to Fort Myers in the District 6A-11 title game. Rather, it will live for all time in school history as the day Tre Carroll went Michael Jordan. Carroll poured in 48 points, including 33 in the second half as he tried to will the team to victory. By virtue of being in the game in the first place, a spot in the state postseason tournament had already been assured and the Tarpons would advance to the second round before a loss against East Lake.
9. MORE MANTAS MAGIC
On Dec. 5, 2019, the Lemon Bay girls soccer team lost to Riverdale, 5-0. The Mantas then won their next two games by 10-0 scores and embarked on a stretch of 16 wins in 17 teams. Win No. 16, on Feb. 18, will be the one remembered for a long time in Englewood. The Mantas defeated Wesley Chapel, 2-1, to win a Class 4A regional title. Zoe Melo’s penalty kick with 2:39 to go proved to be the game-winner. Lemon Bay ended its season in the state’s Final Four and finished with a 21-3 record.
10. FROM JV TO D-1
When former Midwestern high school junior varsity quarterback Colin Blazek walked on to the Venice practice field for the first time, coach John Peacock knew he had lightning in a bottle. The gridiron wizard promptly taped new pages in the playbook and Air Venice took flight. Despite never starting a varsity game, Blazek passed for 2,646 yards and 27 touchdowns in 13 games, setting a pair of school single-game passing records. He led Venice to a huge victory at perennial power Lakeland, passing for 389 yards and attempted 61 passes in Venice’s season-ending loss to St. Thomas Aquinas deep in the Class 7A playoffs.
11. AN IMAGINARY RUN?
Nay, it was real and it was spectacular. Katie Klein, Arianna Andrade and Skyelar Woods propelled the North Port private school deep into the Class 3A girls basketball playoffs, where it defeated Cardinal Mooney, Bishop Verot and St. John Neumann to reach the regional final. Despite the ensuing loss to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal, the season was undeniably the greatest in school history. Klein, Andrade and Woods all went on to play college basketball.
12. 17TH TIME’S A CHARM
Bailey Grossenbacher might be this year’s biggest what-if. The pandemic cut short her senior season in the heart of Lemon Bay’s softball batting order, but not before she made a little history. She drilled a pair of home runs during a 17-1 win against Community Christian to set a school record with 17 career homers. She wouldn’t get a chance to add to that total, but the graduating senior at least was able to etch her name in the school record book.