2012 review | A year of opportunities seized and lost for Bradenton-area sports figures

We'll remember the good -- Taggart, most of the Manatee football season,Cy Young -- along with the not-so-good -- Canes' loss, another Bucs fade

jlembo@bradenton.comJanuary 1, 2013 

BRADENTON

A Hurricane is a Bull and one of the best golf teams in the state once again resides in East Manatee.

The self-proclaimed World Wide Leader in Sports made another trek to Bradenton, a hard-throwing Ray made history, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made everyone believe -- for about 10 weeks. Last summer's amateur baseball draft changed the lives of some of the area's best prep players, and two pitchers packed with potential made cameos at McKechnie Field.

It was yet another interesting year on the local sports scene, and in no particular order, here are some of the stories that caught our attention:

A former Hurricane heads home

To local football fans, Willie Taggart was a star quarterback Manatee High. To the folks at USF, Taggart is the guy they hope will turn around their sputtering team.

The Bulls made Taggart the school's third head coach Dec. 8, days after Skip Holtz was fired following a 3-9 season.

Taggart has experience with struggling programs. After coaching Stanford's running backs for three seasons, Taggart became Western Kentucky's head coach in 2010, taking over a team that had lost 20 straight. A Western Kentucky alum who set 11 school records during his playing days and served as an assistant on a 2002 team that won the Division I-AA national championship, Taggart guided the Hilltoppers to a pair of winning seasons, including a 7-1 mark against Sun Belt foes in 2011, and their first bowl game this season.

"It's great to be home. I left here in 1994 to get back, and now I am back," Taggart said. "Our job is to lock down that I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando and get those players. We are not going to bow down to anyone -- not Florida, not FSU or Miami."

The 36-year-old Taggart did enough during his interview to impress former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy, who was brought in by USF to assist with the hiring process.

"The one thing that attracted me to Willie is he reminds me a lot of myself at that age," Dungy said. "Not a lot of flash, not a lot of glitter: Hey, we are not going to wow you with this, that and the other. We are going to be solid. I could see that commitment to his style of play."

Joining Taggart on his staff will be Raymond Woodie, another local favorite who served as the head coach at Bayshore and Palmetto and was one of Taggart's assistants and top recruiter at WKU. Woodie will serve as a defensive assistant at USF.

The two will get to work on repairing the Bulls' once-promising program, which hasn't been to a bowl since 2010.

"What we have to do now is put everybody on the bus, put 'em in the right seat," Taggart said, "and let Coach T drive the bus."

They were No. 1

On a broiling Sunday afternoon in September, Manatee's football team was beamed into living rooms across the country.

Again.

The Hurricanes, the defending champions in Class 7A, opened the 2012 season in style, defeating Miramar 41-6 in a game broadcast live on ESPN2. It was the second time in three years ESPN carried a Hurricanes game on one of its networks.

Such are the spoils when you're ranked No. 1 in the nation, just as Manatee was by MaxPreps.com prior to the start of the season.

ESPN and USA Today followed suit, putting the Canes on top of their national polls and the program on track to claim its first mythical national championship.

For much of the fall, Manatee played the part, scoring impressive wins over Miami Central (the eventual Class 6A state champion) and Weston Cypress Bay (the eventual Class 8A state runner-up) and going undefeated against Manatee County opponents for the sixth straight year.

Then came the playoffs.

The Hurricanes rolled past St. Petersburg Northeast, Venice and Fort Pierce Central in the first three rounds, winning those games by a combinded score of 172-19 to clinch the program's fourth consecutive region championship and 14th overall.

Next up was the state semifinals and a rematch with a familiar foe, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.

And that was where the Hurricanes' season stopped: Manatee lost 35-18 to the Raiders, snapping its winning streak at 25 and ending all hope of the program winning its sixth state title and first national title.

Aquinas defeated Tallahassee Lincoln the following week to for that program's seventh state championship.

"We got outplayed in every facet of the game -- offense, defense, kicking game, coaching," Manatee coach Joe Kinnan said. "There was nothing we did that was better than what they did. Obviously, they played a lot better than we did.

"It's disappointing to go out in this fashion, on the road, and not play as good as what we were capable of doing."

The Hurricanes finished the year ranked 18th by USA Today, but tumbled out of the final polls crafted by ESPN and MaxPreps. Rivals, which had Manatee in its top three for much of the season, had the Canes at No. 27 in its final RivalsHigh 100.

Kinnan and quarterback Cord Sandberg were named coach and player of the year in Class 7A. It was the second straight such honor for Sandberg, who accounted for more than 9,700 yards of offense, 108 touchdowns and 39 wins in three seasons.

Sandberg has committed to Mississippi State but may play baseball if he is picked high enough in the June draft.

"I'm proud to have been a part of this program," Sandberg said that night. "We had a great senior class, and I'm just proud of everybody in it."

King David

For the first time since 2009, there was no postseason baseball at Tropicana Field.

Despite a tremendous starting rotation and a third-straight 90-win campaign, the Tampa Bay Rays were spectators while the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers battled for the American League crown.

Thanks to David Price, however, the Rays did not go home empty-handed.

The 27-year-old lefty and the first overall pick of the 2007 draft became the first Ray to win the American League's Cy Young Award.

And boy was it close.

Price earned 14 first-place votes and finished with 153 points. Detroit's Justin Verlander, who took home the trophy in 2011, garnered 13 first-place votes and 149 points.

It was the league's closest Cy Young vote since the 1969 race ended in a tie between Baltimore's Mike Cuellar and Detroit's Denny McLain.

Price, who was a runner-up to Seattle's Felix Hernandez in 2010, led the league in ERA (2.56) and winning percentage (.800) while becoming the first 20-game winner in Rays history. He also recorded 205 strikeouts while walking just 59 in 211 innings.

Verlander may have had more strikeouts (239) and more innings pitched (238 1/3), but Price earned some points for pitching in the American League East, considered baseball's toughest division.

Price went 10-2 with 2.51 ERA against division foes and was 5-1 against the Orioles and Yankees, the East's two playoff teams.

The Rays have won their share of individual awards over the years, including Rookie of the Year (Evan Longoria and Jeremy Hellickson) and a pair of Manager of the Year honors for Joe Maddon.

Now they have another.

"That's why I play the game. I don't do this for the paycheck. I don't do this to be an average big leaguer. I want to leave my mark on baseball," Price told MLB.com the night he won the Cy Young. "That's why I do it. I said that in an interview back in 2008. I said, 'When people think about baseball and people think about pitching, I want them to think about David Price.' That's the way I've always been."

Fade by the Bay II

If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking to hang a slogan on their 2012 season, "This Isn't Last Year" would have been a fine choice.

For the Buccaneers and their fans, 2011 was a nightmare. The team dropped its final 10 games, a slide that cost coach Raheem Morris his job and left fans wondering if the players had simply quit following a promising 4-2 start.

So to everyone's delight, this year's edition got off to a fine start. Under new head coach Greg Schiano, the Buccaneers bolted to a 6-4 start and found themselves in the thick of the playoff race.

Quarterback Josh Freeman was in the process of becoming the franchise's first 4,000-yard passer. Running back Doug Martin was setting the team's rookie rushing record. Veteran wide receiver Vincent Jackson, whom the Bucs wooed away from the San Diego Chargers during the offseason, was as good as advertised.

And then, it all came crashing down with five straight defeats, destroying Tampa Bay's postseason plans and putting a negative spin on a once-fine season. A victory in Sunday's season finale at Atlanta left the Bucs with a 7-9 mark.

The losses were ugly. The Buccaneers honored the 2002 Super Bowl team Dec. 9 before losing 23-21 to the hapless Philadelphia Eagles, who trailed by 11 with seven minutes remaining, on the game's final play.

Next came a brutal 41-0 loss at New Orleans, where Freeman threw four interceptions and lost a fumble as the Bucs were blanked by the worst defense in the league.

Freeman threw four more picks the following week, when the Buccaneers fell 28-13 to St. Louis in their final home game of the season.

"I've got to take the blame as the quarterback," Freeman told The Associated Press after the Rams game. "Saints game, this game, not really the brand of football I want to play."

Injuries and other issues played a role. Offensive lineman Carl Nicks, a key offseason acquisition from New Orleans, was done after seven games with a toe injury.

Defensive back Eric Wright was suspended four games for violating the league's performance-enhancing-drug policy, and the Bucs dealt former No. 1 pick and perennial headache Aqib Talib earlier this season to New England.

There were some highlights -- Martin and Jackson played well as did the ageless Ronde Barber. And defensive lineman Gerald McCoy will play in the Pro Bowl.

But want fans really want is the Bucs to play well over a full season. It didn't happen in 2011, and it didn't happen this year, either.

Here today, stars tomorrow

Their stay may have been brief, but pitchers Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole brought some excitement to the Bradenton Marauders, the Pittsburgh Pirates' high Single-A team that wrapped its third summer at McKechnie Field.

Considered two of the best prospects in all of baseball, Taillon and Cole opened the season with the Marauders, and neither disappointed.

Cole, 22, the first overall pick of the 2011 draft, made 13 starts with the Marauders, going 5-1 with a 2.55 ERA while holding opposing batters to a .217 average. He struck out 69 in 67 innings and was voted to the Florida State League's All-Star game.

Cole didn't pitch in the game, and for good reason -- he had already been promoted to Double-A Altoona, where he survived a line drive to the jaw and pitched to a 2.90 ERA in 12 starts despite going 3-6.

By the end of the season, Cole had been called up to Triple-A Indianapolis and had won his lone start.

The Pirates drafted Taillon, 21, out of high school with their first pick in 2010. He spent all of 2011 with low-A West Virginia before starting this year in Bradenton, where he made 23 starts and went 6-8 with a 3.82 ERA.

Taillon pitched 125 innings, struck out 98 and tossed a pair of complete games en route to making the FSL All-Star team. His success continued at Double-A -- Taillon went 3-0 in three starts while posting a 1.59 ERA and walking one in 17 innings.

Time will tell if Cole and/or Taillon make the majors, or do so in a Pirates uniform. But if they do, Marauders fans can say them remembered them before they were stars.

Preps to pros

One moment, Correlle Prime was convinced he wasn't going to get picked during June's amateur baseball draft.

The next, he was packing a bag for Grand Junction, Colo.

A star pitcher at Manatee, Prime was picked in the 12th round by the Colorado Rockies. Eight days later, June 13, Prime signed with the team and reported to the Rockies' Rookie League team.

"It was never really about the money," said Prime, who signed for $190,000 and chose pro baseball over State College of Florida. "It was a chance to get my career started as a professional baseball player, and not too many kids get that opportunity."

The Rockies told Prime his pitching days were done and he would play first base in their system. They stuck to their word -- Prime played 36 games in Grand Junction, 26 at first and 10 as a designated hitter. He hit .283 in 127 at-bats, driving in 11 runs with one home run and seven doubles.

Prime wasn't the only area prep star to go pro.

Cardinal Mooney's Sean McAdams was a 14th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, and unlike Prime, he didn't have to hop a plane to get his career started. Instead, McAdams reported to the Orioles' developmental headquarters in Sarasota, where he went 3-0 with a 6.27 ERA in 13 relief appearances.

Lakewood Ranch's Zack Larson, the Herald's All-Area Player of the Year who helped the Mustangs reach the Class 6A state final four, was a 20th-round pick of the Minnesota Twins.

He later signed with the organization and appeared in 15 games with the team's Gulf Coast League affiliate in Fort Myers. Larson hit .250, swiped three bases and didn't commit an error while splitting time between all three outfield positions.

Other players with local ties to the area also heard their names called, including former SCF pitcher Nick Goody, a sixth-round pick of the New York Yankees.

Goody made 23 appearances with three different Yankees affiliates and finished the year with high Single-A Tampa. He posted a 1.12 ERA with seven saves and struck out 52 in 32 innings overall.

IMG product Alfredo Escalera-Maldonado was an eighth-round pick of the Kansas City Royals, and he hit .303 with 11 RBIs with the franchise's Arizona League team. His teammate at IMG, pitcher Max Foody, a 12th-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, went 0-2 with a 11.57 ERA with the team's Gulf Coast League affiliate.

And another SCF alum, Austin Chubb, was a 21st-round pick of the Washington Nationals. Chubb reported to the Nationals's Gulf Coast League team and hit .209 with two home runs and 12 RBIs.

Repeat on the links

Dave Frantz summed it up perfectly: "Flash in the pan is one time. Two times is pretty darn good."

Consider Frantz's Lakewood Ranch boys golf team pretty darn good.

The Mustangs defeated Ponte Vedra by three strokes during October's Class 2A state golf tournament at Deer Island Golf and Lake Club in Tavares, resulting in the program's second straight state championship.

"It's still just as fun as the first time," said Danny Walker, who carded a team-best 152 at state and finished tied for 13th. "This is a fun tournament for us."

Especially for Walker, who won an individual state title as a freshman in 2010 and has two team championship medals to go in the trophy case.

Unlike last season, Lakewood Ranch wasn't perfect, finishing 127-8. But the Mustangs won big when they had to en route to wrapping a postseason that also featured district and regional championships.

"It's pretty cool considering we have almost a completely different team other than me and Danny," said junior Ramsey Touchberry, who shot a 73 during the tournament's final day and was named the Herald All-Area Boys Golfer of the Year. "It means a lot, and it's a good ending to a season considering we didn't win everything like we did last year." So we ended up with more wins and losses, but it's awesome."

Ben Boulch, the team's lone senior, shot a 153 at state, and sophomore Luke Miller fired a 75 during the second day, 17 shots better than the 92 he fired on Day 1.

"We're just trying to make the best golfers we can," Frantz said, "give them the best competition we can. That's been our deal ... basically, feed them with competition, just put them out there and see if they sink or swim. That gives them the experience. And we work on the instruction and psychology and that's the recipe. ..."

And with so many underclassmen on the team, the recipe may be even sweeter come 2013.

"We'd like to come back," Frantz said, "and do it again."

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