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Rays won’t get their first choice in search for a new stadium

For Stuart Sternberg, finding a new stadium site for the Tampa Bay Rays hasn’t proven as easily as just identifying his preferred site.

“We had some ideas on locations that just weren’t available, that I thought would have worked perfectly, but they’re off the table,” Sternberg said in Port Charlotte Thursday. “So we’re sort of moving down our list to Nos. 2, 3 and 4. It’s like starting pitchers, you have five of them and sometimes No. 4 is better than No. 2, but rarely better than No. 1. The No. 1 is the No. 1. I hate to be mixing these sort of metaphors, but it sort of works in this case.

“We did have a choice that we thought that was going to be ideal, a choice or two, and it was going to be unavailable. We would have had to flesh it out. But we’re working and trying to find out what will be next best.”

Sternberg wouldn’t say where his choice would have been, or if it was in Tampa or St. Petersburg.

How optimistic is Sternberg?

“It’s unknown at this point,” he said.

Sternberg said in February he expected conclusion by August, but said Thursday it could take until the end of the year.

“Nobody wants this process to move quicker than we do,” he said. “Because the sooner we are able to get something done the quicker we’re able to ramp up our revenues and know where our future’s going to be for the next set of generations to come, but it’s an important process and we’re not doing this in a vacuum. We’re working with various cities on both sides of the bay, we’re working with the different counties on both sides of the bay, we’re working with MLB to a point as well, landowners sometimes in some cases. It’s a complicated process.”

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Gators’ fans continue to search for their next great quarterback

There is one question that dominates the Univesity of Florida football team. It isn’t about linebackers.

It isn’t about receivers or runners or defensive backs. It isn’t about opponents or guards or defenders.

At Florida, the question is always about quarterbacks.

This spring, with a shoulder injury to incumbent Luke Del Rio, the Gators have been turned over to redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. The Gators haven’t had an impact quarterback since Tim Tebow in 2009.

That has led to a Franks vs. Trask discussion on campus that has not paused. It seems to be a friendly competition.

“We haven’t had any tension,” Trask told the Orlando Sentinel. “Because we both early enrolled we’ve gotten close ever since.”

“Like they say, iron sharpens iron,” Franks said. “It’s a cool opportunity, a very cool opportunity. I’m working my butt off every day for that opportunity.”

A year ago, however, Franks was still wrestling with an “overwhelming” playbook.

“I think it was a case of me just not coming in and getting comfortable with everybody,” he said. “Being here a season, redshirting, it was really good for me, getting to know the players, getting to know the offense, knowing how things operate around here at Florida.

“It’s been really good for me.”

Franks is known for his strong arm. Trask is known for his accuracy.

“I’ve made a big focus on just being more vocal at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “After one year, coming in as an early enrollee to now I feel 100 percent more confident at the line of scrimmage.

“You gotta be confident. Your energy reflects on everybody.”

Franks has the confidence part down. Too much so at times.

“He’s got great belief in his arm strength,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. “At times, we’ve got to teach him that you can’t make every throw and sometimes you can’t throw it through three guys.”

For the Gators, the players give Florida two chances at their next great quarterback.

And a discussion that will not stop.

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Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon leaving early for NBA draft

Dwayne Bacon said he felt like he wasn’t ready to turn pro last year, which is why he took his name out of consideration for the NBA draft.

This time the Florida State guard doesn’t have any doubts.

The 6-foot-7 sophomore said Wednesday that he will declare for the draft, which will be held on June 22, and hire an agent.

“I had a lot of doubt about me last year. This year I feel like I’m much more mature and got better with my game,” Bacon said. “This time there wasn’t any comeback talk because the coaches and I felt like I was ready.”

Bacon has led the Seminoles in scoring the past two years, averaging 16.5 points and becoming the second sophomore in school history to reach 1,000 points. He scored in double figures in 35 straight games, which is tied for ninth-longest in school history.

This past season Bacon averaged 17.2 points and was a second-team All-ACC selection. He helped Florida State (26-9) reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. The third-seeded Seminoles advanced to the second round before a 91-66 loss to Xavier.

“This year was a very positive year,” Bacon said. “We got back in the tournament and I wanted to get better in my overall game along with becoming a better leader.”

One area of Bacon’s game where he feels like he has grown the most over the past year is perimeter shooting. He made 57 3-pointers this season, compared to 32 as a freshman. His percentage from beyond the arc also improved from 28.3 percent to 33.3 percent. Bacon was near 38 percent at one point but was 5 of 33 on 3-point attempts in his last seven games.

Bacon has been projected to be drafted anywhere from a late first-round to middle second-round pick. He’s also expected not to be the only Florida State player to leave early. Freshman Jonathan Isaac, a 6-10 forward, is seen by most as a lottery pick after averaging 12.0 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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New USF Basketball coach Brian Gregory says local recruiting vital

For the USF basketball team to succeed, it will have to contend with basketball programs from across the nation.

Still, for USF, the chore begins here.

“We have an incredible recruiting base to recruit from,” new coach Brian Gregory said in his introductory press conference Wednesday. “Our footprint of our university has been undervalued and underutilized in the recruiting process. That must and will change.”

Orlando Antigua, Gregory’s predecessor, signed no bay area player in his 2 1/2 seasons. Several Tampa area graduates are playing for schools across the country.

“We’ve always said, ‘Let’s control our area first,’ ” said Gregory.

“We want to identify recruits that are high-character, high-talent, fit our system, fit our style of play, fit the vision and the mission of the university. And we want to do that locally first and then move out from there.”

USF has reached the NCAA Tournament only three times in 45 years.

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Despite horrible weekend, ACC still basketball’s best league

ACC fans, or supporters of schools outside of the SEC, often grumble about the “best conference by far” tag often given to the SEC by football pundits. Each time an SEC team loses a bowl game or a head-to-head matchup with one of the outsiders, the derision often follows.

Conversely, SEC basketball fans, or supporters of other power conferences outside of the ACC, are equally uncertain that conference is that much better than the others.

The ACC put eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field this year, including Florida State as a third seed in the West region. Of those eight, Duke and Louisville were seeded second, while Virginia and Notre Dame each earned five seeds.

North Carolina was one of the tournament’s four top seeds. Clearly, the selection committee was high on the ACC.

Despite this, only North Carolina was able to survive the first weekend. FSU was sent home in embarrassing fashion by 11th seeded Xavier, but the Seminoles and their fans were far from alone in their despair.

Duke’s upset at the hands of South Carolina of the SEC was clearly unexpected. The ACC’s other huge casualty was Michigan’s upset of Louisville.

The Florida Gators became the second SEC team to take down one of the ACC’s elite. After completely throttling Virginia, Florida expected to face the tournament’s top seed, Villanova, Friday in New York. That will now be Wisconsin after the Badgers bounced the Wildcats from the tournament.

With only North Carolina left to carry the ACC banner, the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12 all have three teams playing this weekend. The Big East has two and the West Coast has one.

Having said all of that, it is not accurate to say the ACC is anything but college basketball’s strongest conference. Despite going 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, the top-to-bottom strength of the league is there for all to see.

The eight teams making it into the NCAA tournament can be favorably matched against the top eight teams of any other league. There can be little argument there. Don’t forget that six ACC teams reached the Sweet 16 just a year ago and two (North Carolina and Syracuse) made it to the Final Four.

By comparison, look at SEC football. This year, they placed 12 teams in bowl games, including the College Football Playoffs.

Yes, they had a losing record of 6-7 during the post season, which includes Alabama’s loss to Clemson in the championship game. With all due respect to Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, that does not mean there are 10 or 12 teams from any conference that line up better than the top 10 or 12 teams from the SEC. The league was 9-2 in the post season last year.

Despite the ACC bloodbath this past weekend, it would shock no one if the Tar Heels were the ones to cut down the nets in Glendale Ariz. on April 3.

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Florida running back Mark Thompson isn’t making predictions

This time, Mark Thompson will run silently.

Thompson, the senior running back for the University of Florida, entered talking last year. He was going to have 1,000 yards by the Georgia game, remember? He was going to kick the doors open in the SEC.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Thompson, a second-team junior college All-American at Dodge City Community College, finished the regular season with only 299 yards rushing a year ago.

“I would say last year did motivate me and humble me,” Thompson said. “I made some predictions, I said some things. I was saying a lot before even stepping on the field. Yes, it humbled me a lot. And this year I’m just looking forward to my progress from year one to year two and I will have a lot of focus.”

Thompson said he is better prepared this season.

“Hey, just get on the field, make some film for the NFL guys to look at and get some stock to my name,” he said. “I’m headed in the right direction. I’m not heading backward, I’m not taking any steps back. I’m very, very ready to see what’s in store for me these next few months.”

“I had some hiccups learning, not only football, but things off the field as well. I could have had a way better first year in all aspects of being at the University of Florida. But, you make the biggest transition from year one to year two, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Thompson said the low point last season was being suspended from the Georgia game after being cited for possession of marijuana the Thursday before the game.

“Definitely, missing that Georgia game. It hurt,” he said. “Growing up, that was the main game. I was always like, ‘Florida-Georgia, I got to watch this’. So not being able to play in that game really hurt, and it really made me realize, ‘Hey, I’m not doing the right thing, let me step back and really re-evaluate everything I’m doing, and stay on the right track’.”

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Baseball Prospectus sees the Tampa Bay Rays improving to second

The Tampa Bay Rays may be facing a turnaround year.

At least, that’s what the people at Baseball Prospectus believe.

According the PECOTA rankings, the Rays should improve to be the second-ranked team in the AL East. They should tie the Texas Rangers for the wild-card spot with 84 wins. It was the kind of turnaround prediction that is sure to make manager Kevin Cash happy.

That might sound a bit lofty when you compare it to last year’s 68-win season, but the website sees the Rays as giving up the second-fewest runs (690) in the division. Although it also thinks the Rays will have the second-worst batting average (.244) in the league, one point ahead of Oakland, it thinks it will finish three games behind Boston in the division.

It also has Toronto three games back, the Yankees four games back and Baltimore 10 games back.

Does that seem lofty to you? Well, Bleacher Report still has the Rays in fifth, going 72-90 on the season. USA Today also has the Rays in the basement, going 75-87 on the season.

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Lightning embarrassed by Arizona with defeat in playoff drive

Quick question: If a team is going to be embarrassed by the second-worst team in the NHL, what does it say?

Other than, for a night, that the Tampa Bay Lightning was among the worst.

The Lightning blew every advantage Tuesday night. They were playing the second-worst team in the league, the Arizona Coyotes. They were at home. They held a lead in the third period. They were playing with playoffs in mind.

And still, they lost a 5-3 game to Arizona, an embarrassing game that might help keep them from the post-season.

The Bolts gave up five goals for the third straight game, and they lost again.

“You have to keep the puck out of your net if you’re going to win,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “In our last two games, we’ve scored three. In the past, when we’ve made a commitment to play defense, we’ve won those games. If you’re not going to defend, you’re not going to win.”

Cooper offered up an interesting statistic. Arizona blocked 25 shots on Tuesday night; the Bolts blocked only six.

Still, the Bolts had a chance to win. Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Vlad Namestnikov scored to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead. Still, Arizona came back to win.

The Lightning, impossibly, is still only four points out of a playoff spot. But as Cooper said, “We’re running out of real estate.”

Tampa Bay now goes on the road, facing Boston and Detroit.

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FSU defensive end Josh Sweat has learned his lesson for Seminoles

For Josh Sweat, there wasn’t enough sweat.

Sweat, the defensive end of the FSU Seminoles, looks back at a year ago and remembers being called out for loafing in a loss to North Carolina. He seems determined that it will not happen again.

“Everyone knows I had that one bad game,” Sweat told the Tallahassee Democrat. “I’m not going to let it bother me anymore. I felt like my last six games after that, I definitely turned it around. I’m not worried about that anymore, and nobody is going to get me down from that.”

Sweat has turned himself into an example for his teammates.

“I came out here the first day (of spring practice) and started to run to the ball,” Sweat said. “Everyone just followed.”

Last season finished like that for Sweat. His last three games included 4 1/2 sacks.

“We lost by a little bit,” Sweat said, “and sometimes a lot. But when it really mattered, we didn’t pull through. Some of the bad habits started in practice. It’s easier to say it, but we need to work on those things.”

The work will have to come quickly. FSU opens its season against Alabama. Sweat will be counted upon to help replace Demarcus Walker, who was second in the nation with 16.5 sacks.

 

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St. Petersburg International Baseball starts Friday with Team Canada vs. Rays

The seventh season of St. Petersburg International Baseball is set to kick off Friday with a game between Team Canada and the Tampa Bay Rays prospect squad.

After the opening game against the Rays prospect squad, Team Canada will take on MLB prospect teams for the Tigers on March 27, Braves on March 28, Phillies on March 29, and Blue Jays on March 30.

The first five games of the seven-game season will be held at the Walter Fuller Baseball Complex on 30th Avenue North, while the last two games will be held at the Huggins-Stengel Sports Complex on 5th Street North. Each game is set to begin at 1:05 pm.

Tickets for the Walter Fuller games are $10 each, while the Huggins-Stengel games are free and open to the public.

The Huggins-Stengel games will feature Puerto Rico at bat with players from the World All-Stars.

The season will also serve as the second official season of an international spring training league, featuring players from 12 countries, including Australia, Belarus, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, and Spain.

For the full schedule and information on group tickets and local sponsor packages, visit StPeteInternationalBaseball.com.

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