New faces ushered in a new era for area football, a champion was crowned in volleyball, and a local baseball product flashed prodigious power as a pro.
The Tampa Bay Rays lost their two chief architects, a local legend became a hall of famer, and the area's most storied basketball program took up more room in the trophy case.
The year in local sports was once again chock full of memorable moments, ensuring that 2014 won't be forgotten anytime soon.
It was tough narrowing it down to a list of 10 stories. But here they are, in no particular order:
New faces, familiar places
The last time a prep football season didn't include Joe Kinnan and Paul Maechtle was 1980. That was until this summer, when Kinnan, who won 284 games and five state championships at Manatee, announced he was taking a leave of absence for the 2014-15 school year. His decision came roughly seven months after Maechtle, a winner of 281 games and two state titles at Southeast, coached his final game with the Seminoles, triggering a fall of transition.
Southeast picked Maechtle's replacement in January with the hiring of John Warren, who served as an assistant for one season under Maechtle before spending the 2013 season coaching in Illinois."I enjoyed working with him," said Maechtle, who wasn't on the hiring committee. "We were disappointed to lose him because at the time, we needed a good receivers coach. It was four very good candidates, and it must have been a very difficult decision for our administration. But I think they picked a very good man and I wish him the best of luck."
Manatee had to act quickly to replace Kinnan, who didn't coach during the spring, and in July announced the hiring of John Booth, who graduated from Manatee in 2000 and spent the previous five seasons at Valrico Bloomingdale. Booth, who had a stellar college career at MidAmerica Nazarene, beat out more than 70 applicants for the position. "John, you can't find anybody that has a bad word to say about the guy," said Manatee athletic director Jason Montgomery. "To have somebody with that kind of character. ... We're sitting right where we want to be.
"He really is the perfect fit for the program."
Kinnan formally resigned from the school district in August.
Working with a young team, Warren went 1-9 during his first season at Southeast. Booth, meanwhile, helped guide the Hurricanes to a 12-2 record and their 15th regional championship and finished tied for third in the balloting for Class 8A Coach of the Year. Leading the way for Manatee was running back Johnnie Lang, who rushed for 2,116 yards and 32 touchdowns and took third in the Class 8A Player of the Year voting. He is the second Hurricane to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season, with the other being Shevin Wiggins in 1993
Manatee's golden girls
Prior to this season, Manatee's volleyball team had never made it past the second round of the region playoffs. So when the Hurricanes and their first-year coach, Tony Cothron, began counting down the wins required to win a state championship, it seemed a bit audacious.
By the end of the season, however, no one could doubt Cothron or his girls again. Manatee made its first trip to the state final four count with a 3-1 win over nationally ranked Jupiter in the Class 8A championship match at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
It was the county's second state volleyball title and first since Palmetto won Class 2A in 1986. "They fought for every point and realized that, no matter what, as long as we took care of the ball, good things could happen for our team," said Cothron, later named the state's Coach of the Year for all classifications. "I can't say enough for the team that was on the court, the team that was on our bench. ... This is a great group of girls."
After rolling to their second straight district championship, the Hurricanes dropped three sets during three regional and two final four matches. Yet that didn't mean Manatee made it easy - to the contrary, the Hurricanes won their six sets during the state semifinal and final by 14 points, and were taken to five sets by district rival Palm Harbor University during a regional semifinal.
"I think they're trying to give me a heart attack," Cothron said at one point during the playoffs.
The Hurricanes always made the big play when it counted, thanks in part to Haley Coulter, a junior outside hitter who had 18 kills and 14 digs against Jupiter in the championship match. Coulter, a Tulsa commit named the Player of the Year in Class 8A, helped Manatee rally back after the Warriors rolled to a 25-14 win in Set 1. "We hadn't played many matches that challenged us. So when we played them, we knew that we had to play our A game and everybody had to step up," she said. "I was like, 'Come on guys, this isn't over. We can finish this.'"
Coulter had plenty of help, including some from her own house: Her sisters and freshmen twins Gabby, a setter, and JoJo, a hitter, were fixtures in the starting lineup, along with junior Jacqui Armer, an LSU commit who bounced back after missing nearly two weeks with the flu and mononucleosis. "It wasn't just, 'Let's go to state.' It was, 'Let's win state.' There's a big difference," said Armer, who had six kills and three blocks against Jupiter. "We did what we needed to do to get the job done."
So what's next for a team that graduates just one senior? Time will tell. But one thing is certain: The Hurricanes don't expect to be given anything.
"We wouldn't want to assume the best just because we won this year," setter Gabby Coulter said. "But I think we have a greater chance knowing what we're getting into and how hard we have to work. But we can't let it up. We've just got to keep progressing and not stay at this level."
Noles return to summit
Whenever Southeast's girls basketball team makes a run to the state final four, John Harder, the Seminoles' venerable head coach, dons the jacket. It's orange and blue and plaid, a gift given to him by his father-in-law in 1984. And he had no use for it since 2003 before the 2013-14 team steamrolled its way to Lakeland.
The wait proved worth it. Anchored by four seasoned seniors in the starting lineup, the Seminoles defeated Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee 52-35 in February to win the Class 5A state championship and cap a season where their only loss came to Sarasota, a Class 7A state semifinalist, back in November.
"It feels pretty good for him to bring (the jacket) back out of the closet," said DeAngela Mathis, who closed her career by scoring 15 points in the state championship game. "It's been up for many years. And I'm glad to be on the team to bring it back out."
Mathis, Bevin Mays, Janelle Gould and Keshawna Robinson had been together since they were freshmen, going through a tumultuous four years that included back-to-back seasons without a district championship and missing the regional playoffs in 2013. Yet as that was the furthest thing from anyone's mind as the Noles raised the championship trophy inside The Lakeland Center. It was the program's fourth and third under Harder, later named the state's overall Coach of the Year
Southeast finished 30-1 and with the exception of an overtime win over Cape Coral in the regional finals, won its postseason games by average of more than 23 points. "They just played so hard and they just played so well," Harder said. "They saved their best games for the biggest stages, for the biggest of games."
Mathis, Mays and Robinson scored 1,000 points for their careers while Gould had 10 steals during the state semifinal and final.
"I'm still trying to get it through my head that we actually won it, we actually did it," Gould said. "I'm just happy to be with this team. After all we've been through, I love them."
In the waning minutes of the championship game, Harder removed each of his starters one at a time. As they were serenaded by the large throng of Noles fans who made the trip from Bradenton, each player received a warm hug from their coach.
"That's what it was about - for them to say goodbye to their fans, one by one," Harder said. "They greeted me, and I'll never forget that hug for the rest of my life. It was something special."
So were the 2013-14 Southeast Seminoles.
Griffin goes boom
Ted Williams once said the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a round ball with a round bat. For five glorious swings last summer, Jonathan Griffin made it look extraordinarily easy.
An alumnus of Lakewood Ranch and State College of Florida, Griffin hit four home runs during a May 21 game against the Tennessee Smokies while playing with the Mobile BayBears, a Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Griffin hit another during his first at-bat the following afternoon, resulting in five home runs in five at-bats against five different pitchers. It was a performance that landed Griffin on ESPN, drew a curtain call from fans of the host Smokies and was voted the Best Performance by the staff of the Minor League Baseball Yearly Awards (MiLBYs).
Griffin became just the second player in the history of the Southern League to homer four times in one game. The other was George Kalafatis in 1969. "It's a great feeling," Griffin said. "You go up and get mentioned with some great names. I saw a Tweet with my name next to Josh Hamilton's name. It's really still amazing for me to see that. So I mean, it's cool to be a part of something like that as you go up."
Griffin, whose 38 career home runs are tops all-time at SCF, finished the year with 15 home runs in 109 games during his first full season in Double-A. But he won't forget those five marvelous swings any time soon.
"It was pretty cool," Griffin said. "I didn't get to see the MLB Network; I just saw a glimpse of the SportsCenter segment. Obviously, I am going to embrace it while I can. And put it behind me, put it in my past, once I fall asleep tonight."
TD Tommie in hall
It may have taken longer than expected, but Tommie Frazier was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in May.
Despite a career at Nebraska that included two national titles, more than 6,200 yards of offense and a plethora of honors and awards, Frazier, a Manatee grad, hadn't received enough votes for enshrinement after first appearing on the ballot in 2006.
Yet when the call finally came, Frazier was grateful rather than upset about it not happening sooner.
"Getting into the hall of fame means a lot because it shows that people really appreciated the way I played the game," Frazier said. "I wasn't disappointed I didn't get in earlier. My thinking was be patient and when it happens it happens. It's something you can't control, and I knew it would eventually happen."
After a stellar career as a Hurricane, Frazier went 33-3 with the Cornhuskers, losing once in the regular season and leading the program to three consecutive national title games. He saved his best for his senior season, when he helped Nebraska cap an undefeated 1995-96 season with a 62-24 thrashing of Florida in the Fiesta Bowl and was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.Blood clots prevented Frazier from taking his game to the NFL. But his place in the College Football Hall of Fame means his greatness at Nebraska will never be forgotten - not that it would have been anyway.
"If we had not won all those games and two national championships, I wouldn't be in the hall of fame," he said. "I was surrounded by great players at every position. I was fortunate that good things happened, but it certainly was not me alone."
Rays get new regime
Before Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon came along, the Tampa Bay Rays were the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And they were awful.
Yet Friedman, the team's president of baseball operations, and Maddon, its unique manager, helped usher in a new culture that brought a new name -- the Rays -- and new results that included four postseason appearances, two division titles and a stunning run to the World Series in 2008.
Now they're gone. Friedman took a similar position with the Los Angeles Dodgers in October not long before Maddon opted out of his contract to manage the Chicago Cubs.
It triggered a slew of offseason change for the Rays, who have also parted ways with Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, Jose Molina, Wil Myers, Joel Peralta and Ryan Hanigan in the wake of last year's disappointing 77-85 finish.
"We're testing the definition of 'tweak,'" said Matt Silverman, the team's new president of baseball operations who served as its president before Friedman went west, "with the number of changes we've made."
One of them was replacing the popular Maddon. And the choice was Kevin Cash, a Tampa native and former Devil Ray who spent the last two seasons as Cleveland's bullpen coach. Cash beat out a crop of 10 finalists that included former managers (Manny Acta and Don Wakamatsu) and a Hall-of-Fame player (Barry Larkin).
"He is as described and advertised," Silverman said of Cash, who turned 37 earlier this month and is baseball's youngest active manager. "He has the energy and the work ethic to make sure he is going to do everything to do this job well. His focus on relationships is genuine, and he's followed that up with preliminary conversations with players and staff."
It's a homecoming for Cash, who graduated from Tampa Gaither and played college ball at Florida State.
"I knew I wanted to stay in the ball game. This is all I've known," Cash said. "Our summers growing up, everything was baseball surrounded by baseball, so I can't imagine doing something other than this. I didn't know in what capacity, and I certainly wasn't thinking this, but I'm glad it's here." Prior to last season, the Rays' first one under .500 since 2007, the franchise strung together four seasons of 90 or more wins. Despite an overhaul of the team's roster, Silverman expects to field a competitive team come April.
"As much as change as we've had, our team and our pitching remain high in talent," Silverman said. "The overall talent level is high if not higher, and our optimism is very high entering spring training."
Year of the Pirates
It wasn't long ago that Braden River's football team was in the throes of despair. The team opened the 2012 season with its fourth coach, Curt Bradley, since playing its first full varsity schedule in 2007 and promptly went 1-9.
It had all the makings of a prolonged tailspin. Bradley, his staff and most of all, the players, had other ideas. And those ideas became reality this fall, when the Pirates won their first district title and recorded their first undefeated regular season.
Braden River went 10-1 and reached the second round of the Class 7A playoffs, capping a turnaround few saw coming two years ago.
"The best thing is for the kids that were here and the coaches that were here from that 1-9 season. To start where we were and be where we are now, that growth and that improvement for those young men is what it's all about," Bradley said after the Pirates beat Palmetto to win the District 10 title. "We attribute it to hard work and dedication and a commitment from the coaching staff and the community and from the players. The players stood their ground and took all that chastising and went to work."
There were heroes aplenty, including defensive back JoJo Louis, who overcame a frightening neck injury to finish with eight interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns. Quarterback Jacob Huesman threw for over 1,900 yards, getting intercepted three times in 200 attempts, while receiver Justin Ross was on the receiving end of 41 of Huesman's completions.
And Bradley earned a Coach of the Year nomination in Class 7A.
Braden River defeated Largo Pinellas Park in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Tarpon Springs East Lake in a regional semifinal. Yet that defeat didn't diminish the greatest season in program history.
"First and foremost, I thank our seniors for accepting us as a coaching staff. They lost their first nine games their sophomore year and never wavered," Bradley said. "That kind of turnaround doesn't happen without kids buying in and working hard. They are the first district champs, and that is something nobody can take away from them."
Bradenton to big screen
The story of Rinku Singh seemed fit for Hollywood.
The folks at Walt Disney Pictures agreed, and turned Singh's life into "Million Dollar Arm," released over the summer and starring Jon Hamm of the hit TV show "Mad Men."
Singh and Dinesh Patel were two cricket players living in India who won "Million Dollar Arm," a sports reality show created by sports agent JB Bernstein, portrayed in the film by Hamm. After beating out more than 40,000 hopefuls, the two were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in November 2008 and were working out in Bradenton, the Pirates' southern home, the following spring.
Five years later, Singh's story was on the silver screen for everyone to see. The Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' high Single-A affiliate, celebrated the premiere by having a Rinku Singh Bobblehead Night with Singh on hand at McKechnie Field to sign autographs.
"There's one thing I'm excited about with this movie -- I hope it's going to inspire a lot of kids," Singh said in May while in Bradenton rehabbing his surgically-repaired left elbow. "It is a very inspiring movie. And I've been excited to hear the feedback from the young people that have had the opportunity to see it. ... It's a very good lesson for the kids -- if you want something and get to do a job, you can't take it for granted."
Critics liked the film, which garnered a 61 percent approval rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences gave it a 7.1 rating out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database.
"They did a great job telling his story," said Trevor Gooby, the Pirates director of Florida operations. "And it's an amazing story."What would make the story more amazing for Singh is for him to realize his dream of making the big leagues.
"I can't even describe how excited I am," Singh said when asked about getting back on a pitcher's mound. "That is what really, really keeps me goingI'm already in good shape, I'm just trying to get back on track."
Five is enough
Cardinal Mooney's boys swim team went to the Class 1A state meet with just five swimmers.
The Cougars came back with a trophy.
So much for strength in numbers.
Mooney's five-man band racked up 165 points to finish second in the team standings behind perennial power Jacksonville Bolles, a supreme accomplishment considering the more swimmers you have, the better you should do.
"I think they made history, because I would find it very hard to believe that there is anybody that has ever done that before," Cougars swim coach Alice Smithers said. "With just five boys, finishing second as a team in a state championship."
Leading the way was Austin Katz, a state champion in the 200-yard freestyle and 100 backstroke.
"I wasn't seeded that well for those events, and I just kind of hoped just to drop time," Katz said. "... And I just swam in prelims, and did better than I had done, was seeded first in both (for the finals). And I just thought, 'I've got to go from here.'"
Katz also swam a leg on Mooney's 200 medley and 400 freestyle relay team that took second, with Matthew Garcia, Vinny Lijoi and Emanuele Rossi and Matthew Nutter rounding out the group.
That was enough for Cardinal Mooney to make history, even if the Cougars had no trouble fitting the entire team on the medal stand.