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Baseball's return tops 2006 stories

Professional sport returning to to Charlotte County in two ways

Executive Sports Editor

Baseball Hall of Fame member Ernie Banks likes to exclaim, "It's a beautiful day -- let's play two!" whenever he's around a baseball diamond.

Mr. Cub's enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat in Charlotte County since the Texas Rangers bolted following the 2002 spring training and Florida State League seasons to make their headquarters in Surprise, Ariz.

But on Sept. 20, Charlotte Sports Park never looked better. On that date, officials of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays joined county government officials to announce they would be partners in a $27.2 million makeover that will provide the Devil Rays a spring home beginning in 2009 and the county an outdoor facility to attract other events.

The new partnership, contingent on a $15 million grant from the Florida Sports Foundation, even has the blessing of the fledgling independent South Coast League, which negotiated a deal with the county a few months earlier that will put one of six franchises in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the ballpark beginning this May.

That's right -- two ballclubs for one stadium. Amazin'.

The SCL club, the Charlotte Redfish, are scheduled to play their opener May 18 against the South Georgia Peanuts, about the time renovations will begin on the stadium provided the county receives the grant. All indications are that Charlotte County, Sarasota (Reds), Bradenton (Pirates), Fort Lauderdale (Orioles) and Port St. Lucie (Mets) will receive funds on Jan. 2.

Professional baseball's return to Charlotte County led the voting by members of the Sun sports department for the top area stories of 2006. The rest of our Top 10 are:

2. WRESTLING CHAMPIONSHIP: Lemon Bay sophomore Scott Bouthiller pinned Suwanee sophomore Merritt Burrus to capture the Class 1A state wrestling championship at 103 pounds at the Lakeland Center on Feb. 18 and finished off a 53-0 season that included 43 pins. He became his school's 20th individual state champion.

3. FISHING RETURNS: After a one-year hiatus, Charlotte County recovered from the effects of Hurricane Charley, and the Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup and ESPN2 returned to Charlotte Harbor and downtown Punta Gorda May 11-13, with Bo Johnson and Mike Del Duca winning the $40,000 check with 12.92 pounds of redfish.

4. MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL DEBUT: Former Charlotte High School baseball player Tommy Murphy, 27, of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, made his Major League Baseball debut May 4 in Detroit, visited Tropicana Field for a reunion with his family, friends, former teammates and former coaches and eventually batted .229 in 48 games with the club.

5. DESOTO COUNTY FOOTBALL: Led by UCF-bound linebacker Troy Kelly, the Shine brothers and running back Bryan Wyrick, the DeSoto County football team, coached by Gary Morton, reached the playoffs for the third straight season. The Bulldogs (7-4) also won the Two Rivers Cup for the second straight season, thanks to their 4-0 record against Charlotte, Port Charlotte, Lemon Bay and North Port.

6. SIX-HOUR SHARK HAUL: Englewood resident Bucky Dennis landed a 14-foot, 6-inch hammerhead shark near the Boca Grande Pass in late May after a fight of nearly six hours. It weighed 1,280 pounds to surpass the existing record hammerhead of 991 pounds caught by Allen Ogle of Punta Gorda in 1982. Dennis donated the shark to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, which found the hammerhead to be pregnant with 55 pups.

7. FOREMAN RESIGNS AMID SEX SCANDAL: The head softball coach at Charlotte High School, Dave Foreman, resigned his position as a special education teacher in January when he was arrested on charges of attempted sexual assault of an 18-year-old female student. Further investigation revealed that Foreman had several other incidents involving inappropriate behavior with students in his school file.

8. CHARLOTTE HIGH ATHLETIC PLANT: The Charlotte County School Board in early December approved plans for the reconstruction of Charlotte High School's athletic plant. The plans, drawn up by a citizens committee convened by assistant school superintendent Rosanne Samson in April, called for a new football stadium east of the current site. On Dec. 12, the school board finally approved funding of $6.9 million to pay for its construction, which could force Charlotte to not have a home football game until October.

9. STEELE RESIGNS IN NORTH PORT: Two days before Thanksgiving, Mike Steele, the inaugural head football coach at North Port High School, resigned in a letter to principal George Kenney. A science teacher, the 44-year-old Steele indicated he wanted to move into high school administration and have more time with his wife and four children. Sascha Hyer, his defensive coordinator, was named the new head coach before Christmas.

10. LEMON BAY'S COMEBACK VICTORY: In one of the most memorable comebacks ever for high school football in Southwest Florida, Lemon Bay scored 19 points in the final 3:12 to beat Orlando Jones, 33-32, at Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Sept. 8. After Matt Piloto threw a pair of touchdown passes, the Lemon Bay defense tackled Jones quarterback Jesse Morris at the 1-yard line with one second remaining on the clock. Robert Blume scored as time expired to give the Manta Rays their only victory of the season.

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