2013 in area sports | New beginnings and a final bow

Coaching legend hangs it up, McKechnie makeover draws raves, 2 Canes go pro

jlembo@bradenton.comDecember 29, 2013 


The past 12 months brought us more October baseball at Tropicana Field, less-than-inspiring football at Raymond James Stadium and a third straight state championship for a local boys prep team.

Controversy surrounded Manatee's baseball team, a couple of former Hurricanes signed pro contracts and a legendary Southeast Seminole spent his final Friday night roaming the sideline.

It was another eventful year in local sports.

Here is how it shook out.

Class act takes bow

After nearly 300 wins, two state titles and 40 years of service, Southeast's Paul Maechtle decided he needed a break.

So Maechtle, the Seminoles' football coach since 1981, announced days before his team's finale against Palmetto that he had decided to step down.

Maechtle entered the Florida Retirement System (DROP) Program, which meant Maechtle can't coach or teach for any monetary compensation for a year beginning in April.

"I knew that this would be my last season, but I didn't want to tell anyone because I wanted to focus on the team and not have this be a Paul Maechtle thing," the 61-year-old coach said.

The Noles won 283 games in 33 years under Maechtle, along with 17 district championships and eight region titles. Maechtle, who spent seven years as an assistant coach, led Southeast to five state title games and championships in 1993 and '94, making the Noles the area's lone team to win consecutive state titles.

"We are losing an icon," Manatee coach Kinnan said, "and one of the greatest coaches and mentors in the state of Florida. He has meant so much to Manatee County and high school football in Florida."

Southeast struggled this year, going 3-7 and missing the playoffs. But the Seminoles beat Palmetto 34-26 in the season's final game to send Maechtle out a winner.

"The whole thing's bittersweet. When you come out and play like this, you want to keep it going," Maechtle said. "But I need a break. Those hills started getting high to climb in 1997, and I think I've climbed up enough of them."

McKechnie makeover a hit

Packed with history and charm, McKechnie Field, the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1969, has long been regarded as the Fenway Park of the Grapefruit League. So when the decision was made to renovate the ballpark in downtown Bradenton, the goal was to improve on McKechnie while keeping its intimacy and tradition intact.

Mission accomplished.

NDC Construction teamed with Fawley/Bryant Architects on the $10 million project that included a 360-degree, outfield-spanning boardwalk, tiki bar, additional concession stands and restrooms, party decks, bleachers in left field and a new fan plaza, as well as more than 2,000 more seats.

The project was a hit with the community; a record 93,433 fans swung through McKechnie Field's gates last spring to watch the Pirates. And that success spilled into the summer, when a record 109,845 fans poured into the ballpark to see the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' high Single-A affiliate.

McKechnie Field opened in 1923.

"The project came out just the way we wanted it to," said Trevor Gooby, the Pirates' senior director of Florida operations.

The locals weren't the only ones enamored with McKechnie Field 2.0. Ballpark Digest, a national publication based in Wisconsin, named the project the year's best ballpark renovation that cost more than $1 million.

"Keeping that atmosphere was very important for the Pirates and their fans," said Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest, "and the renovations maintained that traditional feel while still featuring the amenities fans have come to expect in spring training."

Playoffs come to St. Pete

They made it interesting -- heck, they almost didn't make it at all -- but the Tampa Bay Rays clinched their third postseason trip in four years, a feat that seemed light years away during the franchise's dark early years.

And they needed an extra game to do so. After dropping two of three to the lowly Toronto Blue Jays, the Rays found themselves tied with the Texas Rangers for the American League's second wild-card spot after 162 games and had to travel to Arlington for a one-game playoff.

Thanks to David Price, the trip was worth it. Tampa Bay's ace lefty shook off his past struggles against the Rangers and threw a complete game, and Evan Longoria had three hits and two RBIs in the Rays' 5-2 win.

Two days later, the Rays headed to Cleveland and beat the Indians, the league's other wild card, 4-0, to reach the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox.

Things got off to a dreadful start; the Rays were outscored 19-6 in dropping the first two games at Fenway Park.

But the momentum shifted when the series moved to Tropicana Field for Game 3. Down 3-0, the Rays drew even on Longoria's three-run home run in the fifth and took a 4-3 lead in the eighth on Delmon Young's pinch-hit groundout.

The Red Sox knotted the game at 4 in the ninth, setting the stage for Jose Lobaton. The Rays' back-up catcher hit a two-out home run that landed in the touch tank in center field, clinching a 5-4 win and triggering a raucous celebration at the Trop.

The good vibes were short-lived: The Red Sox closed out the series with a 3-1 win in Game 4 en route to their third World Series title since 2004.

But it wasn't a lost season for the Rays. They went 92-71, their fourth straight season of at least 90 wins, and crowned their third AL Rookie of the Year in outfielder Wil Myers.

Dynasty out east

Winning a state championship once is special. Doing it twice in a row is impressive.

Three times, however, is historic. And that's just what Lakewood Ranch's boys golf team did this fall. The Mustangs won a third straight state title, the first public school team to claim three consecutive golf crowns.

The only other team to do it was Bradenton Prep.

Lakewood Ranch capped its stellar run with a 152-5 record and 15-shot victory over Lithia Newsome at the Class 3A state tournament in Howey-in-the-Hills. The Mustangs carded a 593 at the state meet, beating their all-time best of 594.

"I see this as probably our best team," said coach Dave Frantz, "top to bottom."

Ramsey Touchberry finished tied for second, and Danny Walker tied for sixth. Seniors, Touchberry and Walker helped lead Lakewood Ranch to three state titles and a runner-up finish in 2010.

"There's nothing else that can be done," said Walker, who will take his game to the University of Virginia, "so we're pretty excited about it,"

Luke Miller, Kelly Sun and Charlie Sun rounded out the lineup for the Mustangs, who won't be forgotten any time soon.

"I don't know if there's any team in the nation that wins three in a row," Miller said, "and always has a chance to compete."

Cord chooses baseball

When it came to making the biggest decision of his life, Cord Sandberg acted quickly.

The Manatee alum starred for three years on the school's football team, earning the quarterback a scholarship from Mississippi State.

But Sandberg wasn't a bad baseball player, either. So when the Philadelphia Phillies took him during the third round of June's amateur baseball draft, he signed with the baseball team the next day for a $775,000 bonus.

"My mindset is I'm going to try to become a major leaguer," Sandberg said moments after his name was read on MLB.com. "I'm just going to go out there and play some baseball."

Sandberg reported to the Phillies' Gulf Coast League team and hit .207 with 14 RBIs, two home runs and four steals in 48 games.

In November, Sandberg spent three weeks working out at the franchise's academy in the Dominican Republic in preparation for his first spring training as a professional ballplayer.

"I definitely think I'll be more prepared," he said. "I'm kind of excited to start my first professional baseball season not coming off playing football. Baseball is the only thing I've done, so I'm excited to see how it will help me."

Jags draw an Ace

First, he was a Pop Warner star. Then he was a four-year starter at Manatee. Then came an award-winning turn as a South Carolina Gamecock.

Now Ace Sanders has taken his game to the pro level.

The Jacksonville Jaguars took Sanders in the fourth round with the 101st pick back in April after Sanders earned SEC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year honors.

"When you watch film, you see that his quickness is electric. He has some serious juice in terms of his ability to get off the mark and separate in a short area," Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said.

Sanders returned to Bradenton in June for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's football camp.

"Jacksonville is good for me. It's close to home, and it's a slow city, which is right for rookies," Sanders said. "There are not a lot of distractions. But I am just learning everything from scratch, and my goal right now is just to make the team."

Sanders did make the team and has totaled 45 catches for 434 yards and a touchdown in 14 games. Sanders has also passed for a touchdown for the Jags, who take a 4-11 record into Sunday's season finale against Indianapolis.

Canes in a pickle

Three years ago, Manatee's baseball team nearly won a state championship.

Now the program is mired in controversy.

News broke in October that the program was under investigation for alleged financial improprieties after an anonymous letter was sent to the school district. The program's funds were frozen, and the district launched an extensive investigation and self-reported to the Florida High School Athletic Association.

On Oct. 31, Dwayne Strong resigned as the team's coach. And earlier this month, the district released its findings, which alleged that former Manatee principal Robert Gagnon and football coach and athletic director Joe Kinnan worked to steer school funds to Strong's Sandlot @5Tools, a baseball training facility in downtown Bradenton. The report also stated that Kinnan knowingly let Strong coach the 2013 season without the proper certification.

Rick Mills, the district's superintendent, recommended Gagnon and Kinnan be suspended 10 days without pay and that Kinnan, who announced Dec. 6 he was stepping down as the school's athletic director, be demoted.

Gagnon has formally requested an appeal for an administrative hearing. Kinnan, who called the allegations "far overreaching," said he also plans to file for a hearing.

The district sent its findings to the FHSAA.

Prior to the investigation's release, Manatee hired Rob Viera as its new baseball coach. Viera is a Manatee graduate and former Hurricanes assistant who ran Saint Stephen's program for three years.

Harder and the 700 Club

It began Dec. 3, 1984. That's the day John Harder first patrolled Southeast's sideline as the school's girls basketball coach and triggered one of the most prolific runs in the history of the state.

The Seminoles won a state title in Harder's first year and have won plenty of games since. And Dec. 17, Harder won his 700th game when the Noles defeated district nemesis St. Petersburg Lakewood 58-35 at Southeast's Benjamin "Buzz" Narbut Gymnasium.

"I am humbled," Harder said that night. "I have had the health and strength to get into the gym for 30 years (as Southeast's basketball coach)."

Harder entered Saturday night's Willie Clemons championship game with a 704-186 record with two state titles, 19 district championships and four appearances in the state final four. The Noles strung together a 72-game winning streak against Manatee County opponents that lasted more than a decade and began a 39-game winning streak in 1989.

Harder is also a member of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association's Hall of Fame and has run the Clemons Classic for 10 years.

Taggart, USF stumble

Former Manatee great Willie Taggart wasn't exactly inheriting a tradition-rich juggernaut when he was named head coach of USF's football team in December 2012. The Bulls went a combined 8-16 in their final two years under coach Skip Holtz and hadn't reached a bowl game since 2010.

Yet Taggart's first year in Tampa was a little bumpier than people expected; the Bulls went a program-worst 2-10 and dropped their final six games.

Things were bad from the beginning -- USF opened the season with a humbling 53-21 loss at home to Division I-AA McNeese State -- and never really got better, as the Bulls finished 123rd in the country in points per game (13.8) and went 2-6 in the new American Athletic Conference.

Similar to all first-year coaches, Taggart needs time to implement his system as well as the bring in the recruits to run it. And USF may have found its quarterback in Mike White, a true freshman who threw for 1,083 yards during the final six games of the season.

And Taggart, who turned Western Kentucky from a winless team into a bowl team, knows a thing or two about turnarounds.

But in order for USF fans to invest in the program, Taggart and the Bulls must produce better results than they did in 2013.

MRSA and a mess

Oh, where to begin talking about the 2013 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

MRSA? The Josh Freeman debacle? The disappearance of Carl Nicks? That 0-8 start?

This was supposed to be a big year in Tampa Bay, especially after Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis were added to shore up a secondary that many considered the only thing that kept the 2012 Buccaneers out of the playoffs.

Freeman was back. So was All-Pro wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Offensive Rookie of the Year Doug Martin.

It didn't take long, however, for those expectations to sink, beginning in Week 1, when the Bucs lost 18-17 to the New York Jets thanks in part to a late hit by Lavonte David that set up the Jets' game-winning field goal.

In fact, three of the Bucs' first four defeats came by three points or less.

Things got worse. Much worse. Freeman came under fire for missing a team photo, and his leadership ability came into question when his teammates didn't vote him as one of the captains.

Then word leaked out that Freeman was in Stage 1 of the league's substance-abuse program -- Freeman said he accidentally took Ritalin for his ADHD instead of Adderall -- and the Bucs released Freeman Oct. 3. It was a sudden fall from grace for a guy who led the Buccaneers to a 10-win season in 2010.

And all of this came after MRSA, a staph infection, was found in the Bucs' locker room. Three players were diagnosed with MRSA, including kicker Lawrence Tynes, who had a messy separation with the team, and Nix, an offensive lineman whose toe injuries coupled with the infection prevented him from appearing in a single game this year.

The Buccaneers got on a bit of a roll midway through the season, winning four of five after an 0-8 start. But they head into today's finale in New Orleans at 4-11, leaving many to wonder if embattled Greg Schiano will be back after a mess of a season that began with such lofty expectations.

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