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Softball: AHN caps fairy-tale season with 3A state title

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From every poignant moment to every marvelous play to every memorable rally, Academy of the Holy Names’ season unfolded like some unbelievable softball fairy tale. Again and again, the Jaguars outdid themselves in inspiration and in achievement, and Thursday night at Legends Way ballfields they provided a joyous conclusion to their special story.

The thrilling journey ended in happiness when Academy of the Holy Names rallied — twice — to beat Windermere, 4-3, in the Class 3A final for its first state title, making one of this year’s most unforgettable teams even more noteworthy. 

The Jaguars overcame a 2-0 deficit, scoring twice in the fifth inning to tie it. They watched the Lakers rally with two outs in the top of the seventh to retake the lead. Down to its final three outs, Academy of the Holy Names got the first two runners on base, then capitalized ona pair of throwing errors to bring both home for a walkoff win.

The win capped off an epic day for bay area teams at the state softball tournament. Hernando (4A) and Land O’ Lakes (5A) both erased significant deficits to pull ahead for good in the seventh inning of their semifinal games to advance to Friday’s final. 

It was appropriate that the Jaguars clinched their first title with the same winning formula that helped them win 13 straight heading into Thursday’s final. Belle Sardja gave them another effective start on the mound in the postseason. Sardja did her part at the plate, too, with three hits and an RBI that tied the game in the fifth inning.

She was not the only one who supplied the offense. Three others — Zeta Bennett, Genevieve Chiellini, Camryn Feast and Rachael Petrarca,– each had a hit. 

Still, it appeared it might not be enough. 

The euphoria of tying the game was dampened when Windermere Prep scored once in the seventh to go up 3-2. 

No matter. 

The Jaguars had already overcome so many odds, such as enduring the death of a beloved parent of two players and battling through the struggles to the start of an uneven season. 

To them, they had the Lakers right where they wanted them. After all, Academy of the Holy Names never wore off its rally caps.

Chiellini led off with a single and Feast walked. 

That set up Sardja for the heroics. 

She smacked a ball that fell for a hit. The crowd began to cheer in disbelief. Many of them were already on their feet. Others rose to join them. 

One run came across. Then another. 

Game over. 

All the players leapt, in that ungainly way that kids jump around in excitement, skipping and hugging each other as they ran toward home plate, all to celebrate an elusive state title. 

This was a fairy-tale team. This was a championship team. 

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General

FHSAA releases softball class and district assignments

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The Florida High School Athletic Association released the classifications, districts and regions for softball this coming season. The assignments are based on student enrollment numbers from October 2020. This is a one-year cycle that the FHSAA board of directors voted on earlier this year. There likely will be a two-year cycle starting with the 2022-23 calendar year. Below is the list for area teams. For the full  boys softball list click here.

Class 7A, District 6

Durant

Newsome

Plant City

Riverview

Class 7A, District 7

Alonso

East Lake

Steinbrenner

Palm Harbor University

Plant

Class 6A, District 5

Gaither

Land O’ Lakes

Largo

Leto

Mitchell

Sickles

Class 6A, District 6

Armwood

Strawberry Crest

Tampa Bay Tech

Wharton

Wiregrass Ranch

Class 6A, District 7

Bloomingdale

Bradenton Manatee

Lennard

Palmetto

Class 5A, District 5

Fivay

Lecanto

River Ridge

Springstead

Sunlake

Class 5A, District 6

Auburndale

Groveland South Lake

Lakeland Kathleen

Pasco

Class 5A, District 9

Blake

Freedom

Hillsborough

Jefferson

King

Class 5A, District 10

Countryside

Osceola

Pinellas Park

Seminole

Class 5A, District 11

Boca Ciega

Hollins

Northeast

St. Petersburg

Class 5A, District 12

Braden River

Bradenton Southeast

Brandon

East Bay

Spoto

Class 4A, District 9

Cypress Creek

Hudson

Nature Coast

Wesley Chapel

Zephyrhills

Class 4A, District 10

Anclote

Clearwater

Dunedin

Gulf 

Tarpon Springs

Class 4A, District 11

Chamberlain

Lake Region

Middleton

Mulberry

Robinson

Class 3A, District 6

Central

Hernando

South Sumter

Weeki Wachee

Class 3A, District 9

Academy of the Holy Names

Berkeley Prep

Brooks DeBartolo

Lakeland McKeel

Tampa Catholic

Class 3A, District 11

Calvary Christian

Clearwater Central Catholic

Lakewood

Parrish

Sarasota Cardinal Mooney

Class 2A, District 6

Bishop McLaughlin

Hernando Christian

Mount Dora Christian

Ocala Trinity Catholic

Seven Rivers Christian

Class 2A, District 9

Academy at the Lakes

Cambridge Christian

Carrollwood Day

Foundation Christian

Lakeside Christian

Seffner Christian

Class 2A, District 10

Admiral Farragut

Canterbury

Indian Rocks Christian

Northside Christian

Shorecrest

St. Petersburg Catholic

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General

Former Largo and Illinois standout Bobby Roundtree dies

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Bobby Roundtree, the former Largo High and Illinois standout defensive lineman who became an inspiration for many by vowing to walk again after suffering a spinal cord injury, died Friday afternoon, the family confirmed. He was 23. 

No other details were provided. 

A candlelight vigil will be held Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Ridgecrest YMCA. Those in attendance are encouraged to wear their 97Strong apparel.

Roundtree’s death came two weeks after he received the Bruce Capel Award for Courage, an honor given annually by the Illinois football program. 

Less than 24 hours ago before he passed, Roundtree posted a message on his Twitter page.

More than two years ago, Rountree was in a hospital bed, the result of a swimming accident near the docks off John’s Pass that required spinal cord surgery. It left him in a wheelchair. 

Before the accident, the goals were all related to football. A former two-sport star, Roundtree developed into a ferocious pass-rusher, first at Largo, then at Illinois. As a sophomore in 2018, he won the Dick Butkus Outstanding Defensive Player award after leading the Illini in tackles for loss (12.5), sacks (7.5) and pass breakups (7). His play made him a viable NFL draft pick.

Photos courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Since then, the ambitions have been different. 

Roundtree wanted to be independent. He wanted to travel. He wanted to coach, maybe even start his own rehabilitation center. 

Most of all, he wanted to walk again. 

“I just want to show everybody that anything’s possible,” Roundtree recently said last year in his first interview (via Zoom) with reporters since the accident. “You can be on top of the world and something happens, things might not go as planned, but there’s something out there for everybody.

“This injury isn’t going to overcome me. I’m going to beat this and be successful.”

After the accident, once the surgery was over, Roundtree woke up to machines beeping in every corner of the room. His mother, Jacqueline Hearns, kept saying he was special, that he was beating the odds. 

Friends and teammates were there, too, including former East Lake standout Jake Hansen, now a starting linebacker with the Illini. 

The coaching staff also came to the Tampa Bay area to be by Roundtree’s side. Illinois head coach Lovie Smith practically lived at the hospital, even while preparing for the 2019 season. 

The bond between the player and coach has always been strong. After all, Roundtree was one of the marquee names in Smith’s first recruiting classes. 

“Everything that Lovie said during the recruiting process, about being a family, he stuck by,” Packers coach Marcus Paschal said last year. “You could see it during Bobby’s injury and hospital stay. I don’t know of too many other college coaches who would have done what he did. That was big.”

In June of 2019, Rountree was transported to a rehabilitation center in Chicago. He had lost 70 pounds. He could barely raise his right hand, much less do push ups, after the surgery. 

Roundtree ignored conservative prescriptions for recovery, continuingly defying odds. Before long, he was manually pushing himself in a wheelchair. His triceps muscles were developing.

None of this came as a surprise to Jeremy Busch, the head athletic trainer for Illinois football. 

“After this injury you watched a person that eventually was at the worst point in his life, and yet he doesn’t acknowledge that to where it beats him, but he acknowledges it to motivate him,” Busch said last year of Roundtree. “He’s truly your idea of hope and inspiration on a daily basis. He’s gone from the simplest of struggles to absolutely overcoming everything that you put in front of him.”

Roundtree also was determined not to stay in football exile. He kept in contact with teammates. The coaching staff included him in meetings, virtually. 

The grit Roundtree showed through the grueling stages gave the Illini inspiration. A sign was displayed on the top of a tunnel that the players would touch before heading out to Memorial Stadium. It read: 97 Strong (referring to Roundtree’s number).

Illinois became the feel-good team of college football in 2019. The wins kept coming, often in dramatic ways. 

A field goal as time expired was the difference when the Illini handed the Badgers, ranked No. 6 at the time, their first loss in October of last season. It was the Illini’s first win over a ranked opponent since 2011. Afterward, Illinois players recorded videos of their celebration and sent them to Roundtree.

Three weeks later, the Illini rallied from a 21-point third quarter deficit to beat Michigan State 37-34. 

“I would do anything for the kid,” Hansen said last year of Roundtree. “He’s been a huge inspiration.”

Roundtree attended the 2019 regular season finale, his first game at Memorial Stadium since the injury. He led the team in a pregame prayer. 

And Roundtree remained part of the team. His locker was untouched. 

“Having the team I have now I wouldn’t trade them for anything,” Roundtree said last year. “They’ve been very supportive. They know I’m going to work. I know they’re going to work. We’ve got each other’s backs.”

The Illini faithful have shown financial support, too, pledging money to help offset some of Roundtree’s medical expenses. 

“With everybody so behind me and pushing me, that makes me want to go harder,” Roundtree said last year. “The support of everybody fundraising and everybody donating that means a lot having that support. I don’t have a million dollars to help me through this all. People are giving their last pennies to help me out. That’s just a lot of love right there, and I appreciate everybody for that.”

Roundtree spent the past year at home in Largo rehabilitating. He kept posting video messages of his progress. He bench pressed. He did core work. He rolled on to his side, even tried to stand up with the aid of athletic trainers.  

The final steps Roundtree wanted to take were on his own. 

“When somebody tells me I can’t do something I’m going to prove them wrong and show that I’ll be able to do it,” Roundtree said last year. “It might take me a couple of tries, but I’m going to do it.

“I want to show everybody that anything is possible, no matter the situation.”

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College Football

Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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