The Bucs have overachieved, the Rays underwent a much-needed shakeup and the Lightning returned to the rink. These stories and others make up our list of Tampa Bay sports highlights.
1. Naimoli steps down. With media and fans alike calling for his head on a stick, Devil Rays managing partner Vince Naimoli took a hefty buy-out and walked away shortly after the season ended. His departure paved the way for a new management team, led by New York financier Stuart Sternberg, to start the next chapter in the woeful franchise's history. Which, as it turned out, starts with an emphasis on youth — both on the field and in the suites, as Sternberg turned to a 20-something exec to run the operation. Along the way, manager Lou Piniella departed in what was widely considered a mutual agreement. Anaheim Angels bench coach Joe Maddon replaced him.
2. Cadillac revs up. Bucs rookie running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, the fifth overall draft pick out of Auburn, set jaws to dropping and tongues to wagging when he gained the most rushing yards (434) ever for an NFL player in his first three games. He accomplished the feat with an impressive combination of speed, elusiveness and surprising power. Coach Jon Gruden might've driven him too hard, though, because foot and hamstring injuries caused Williams to miss a few games, after which he struggled to regain form. Caddy's return to health sparked the Bucs' late-season surge. He shows every sign of becoming the first true offensive superstar in team history.
3. Jeff Lacy opens big can of whup-ass. The champion super middleweight (168 pounds), a St. Pete native and Brandon resident, scored three major knockouts in '05, the biggest being his August destruction of Robin Reid at a packed St. Pete Times Forum in front of a rabid home crowd. Lacy's bout overshadowed the performance of Tampa's Antonio Tarver, who won an uninspired decision over a fading Roy Jones Jr. in the same venue. The crowd was split in its allegiance between Tarver and the legendary Jones (who's from Pensacola), showing that Lacy and pal Winky Wright (who scored his own coup this year by defeating Felix Trinidad in Vegas) are the real hometown heroes.
4. The Lightning gets back on the ice. While our local hockey team, the defending NHL champs, struggled in the first part of the season, it was heartening to see the team return to the rink after a lockout that canceled the entire '03/'04 campaign. We knew that the Lightning had too much talent to stink it up all season, and as of this writing, the team had rebounded to an 18-11 record, good for second place in the NHL's Southeast Division. Hey, in pro hockey, it's all about the playoffs, anyway.
5. Gruden goes for two. With the season heading into the tank, the Bucs coach decided to roll the bones in a game against Washington. After the 'Skins jumped offside during the Bucs' extra-point try, moving the ball to the one yard line, Gruden called for the two-point conversion with just seconds left. Mike Alstott bogarted his way into the end zone, barely, giving Tampa Bay the 36-35 win instead of going into OT.
6. USF Shocks Louisville. The supposedly also-ran Bulls football team played its first Big East Conference game on Sept. 24 at Raymond James Stadium. All USF did was crush Top 10-ranked Louisville 45-14. The Bulls continued with a solid season behind great defense and a potent rushing attack, staying in contention for the Big East championship, and thus a prestigious Bowl Championship Series bid, much to the howling dismay of pundits who didn't think such a fledgling program should be eligible. While USF lost to Connecticut and West Virginia in its last two regular-season games, the team did land its first bowl berth — the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte vs. North Carolina State.
7. Ronde's three picks. In early December, on the first game of a testy three-game road trip that found the Bucs in must-win mode, cornerback Ronde Barber caught more passes from New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks than most of the Saints receivers. Barber's last interception saved a tight game. He put the cherry on top the following week, by shutting down Carolina with a key late interception. (He also contributed a sack, making him the only cornerback in NFL history to record 20 or more interceptions and sacks.)
8. High school state champs. The preeminent local sports dynasty, by a mile, is Brandon High School wrestling. As of spring '05, the wrestling magnet school/grapple factory had won 413 head-to-head matches over 32 years. In March, the team won its fifth consecutive state title, adding to a record 16 overall. Across the bay, the Lakewood High boys' basketball won the state tournament, and a bit farther north, Palm Harbor University's softball team won the title. A special nod goes to Armwood football, which advanced to defend its state football title, but lost to Ponte Vedra Beach Nease, 44-37. Congrats to all.
9. Chris Simms grows up before our very eyes. When Bucs QB Brian Griese suffered a season-ending knee injury, Gruden handed the ball to his tow-headed second-stringer. The situation did not look good when Simms imploded against the woeful 49ers. But he proved a quick study, found his poise and showed a knack for flinging the deep pass. Simms learned to minimize mistakes (especially back-breaking interceptions) and played a key role in a number of the Bucs' improbable wins.
10. Eduardo Perez's walk-off homer. In a Devil Rays season typically short on highlights, this one stood out: During an early season game, the Boston Red Sox scored two runs in the top of the ninth to tie the score. The home fans feared an extra-innings collapse, while the big contingent of Sox backers jigged in the aisles. Starting the bottom of the inning, manager Lou Piniella sent in Perez to pinch-hit. He promptly crushed Alan Embree's first pitch. His homer traveled 459 feet and struck one of the catwalks supporting the Tropicana Field roof. Just that quick, it was over.