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Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 8:06 AM
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A Closer Look At Sporting Passion That Defines Southwest Florida

A Closer Look At Sporting Passion That Defines Southwest Florida
Red Sox spring training, JetBlue Park, Fort Myers

Author: COURTESY PHOTO

The world contains about 2,600 species of palm trees but only 12 are native to Florida. 
Florida seems to have as many sporting passions as palm trees. That’s certainly true here in our corner of the state, Southwest Florida. It is home to perhaps 200 golf courses, four Major League Baseball spring training teams and a division 1 collegiate athletic program. 
That’s at Florida Gulf Coast University. 
Then there are recreational sports of many species, or varieties. 
That includes pickle ball, tennis, bowling, running, cycling, disc golf, traditional golf, baseball, softball, kayaking, swimming, volleyball, basketball, bocce, track, croquet and even at least one athlete who excels in the luge. 
Luge? 
Isn’t that a winter sport in which athletes go hurtling down mountains on a sled the size, it seems, of a kitchen table? 
Yes. 
But there aren’t mountains or snow around here, as all residents and visitors can plainly see. 
But in January a 16-year-old Iona resident named Isabela Aponte competed in luge in the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics in South Korea. 
Incredibly and almost inexplicably, Southwest Florida can boast a winter sports tradition going back decades. 
Naples resident Brian Shimer competed in five grown-up Olympics in the bobsled from 1988 to 2002 and even become for a time the coach of what is officially called the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. 
Not many sports fans likely know much about steeplechase, a track and field event that involves running, leaping over hurdles and splashing through water. It is an Olympic sport. 
Fort Myers High School graduate Krissy Gear excels in the 3,000-meter event, which became an Olympic event for women in 2008. Gear won the national steeplechase title in July in Eugene, Oregon. That qualified her for the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She finished seventh in her heat and failed to qualify to move forward. 
No matter where one turns or drives or walks or runs in Southwest Florida, one will likely encounter athletes and sporting events. 
There are way too many to mention here but a quick overview will provide perspective on the active lifestyle and spectating options available in the region. 

THE COLLEGES 

 Florida SouthWestern State College softball team has celebrated three consecutive national titles

Florida SouthWestern State College has become a juggernaut in national junior college sports. 
The Bucs’ cavalcade of champions may start with the softball team, which has won three consecutive national titles. Three! 
The Bucs entered 2024 perhaps poised to win another. They began the season ranked No. 1 in the pre-season national poll. 
The volleyball team is also a national power, winning its second successive national JUCO championship in 2023. Outside hitter Alondra Alarcon was named the national player of the year by VolleyballMag.com. 
Other sports at FSW have set their sights on replicating the success of the softball and volleyball teams in recent years. 
The FSW baseball team was ranked No. 16 in the nation in the pre-season poll in January. 
A short drive away at Florida Gulf Coast University the women’s basketball is a dominant power in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Eagles have won five consecutive conference titles and, in those seasons, have a combined record of 79-3 in conference play. 

FGCU also has teams in baseball, softball, men’s basketball, soccer, tennis and women’s swimming and diving, cross-country, golf, indoor and beach volleyball. 
The most famous athletic alum of the school is pitcher Chris Sale, a seven-time All-Star who is now with the Atlanta Braves. He previously pitched for the Boston Red Sox. 
The Red Sox and Braves both have spring training in Southwest Florida. The Red Sox train at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers and the Braves call CoolToday Park in North Port their spring training home. 
Speaking of professional sports… 

THE PROS 

This time of year, in this land of sunshine and warm weather, though, a bigger focus than bobsled or luge is spring training baseball. 
The region has a history of big-league spring training going back nearly a century, to 1925 when the Philadelphia A’s started training at Terry Park in Fort Myers. 
But professional spring training goes back even further. The minor-league Louisville Colonels held spring training in Fort Myers in 1914. 
Now, the city is home every year for two big-league teams who each have been calling this their spring-training destination for more than 30 years. 
The Minnesota Twins have been here since 1991 when they moved from Orlando into the Lee County Sports Complex. The Boston Red Sox have trained in Fort Myers since 1993, first at City of Palms Park and since 2012 at JetBlue Park. 
The Tampa Bay Rays, who play their regular season games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, have called the Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte their spring home since 2009. It’s only about 75 miles south of their regular-season home. 
The Rays, though, returned to St. Pete in 2023 for spring training because of Hurricane Ian damage at the Charlotte Sports Park forcing a move for one year. They are back this year in Charlotte County. 
The Atlanta Braves have trained at CoolToday Park in North Port since 2019. 
Southwest Florida professional sports include more than Major League Baseball. 
There is a minor-league baseball team, the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels of the Florida State League. There is also a minor-league hockey team, the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. 
Both teams have been fixtures on the local sports scene since the 1990s. 
The Mighty Mussels began life at the Lee County Sports Complex as the Fort Myers Miracle in 1992. They are affiliated with the big-league Twins and former players of the team include two men who are now Hall of Famers. 
David Ortiz, the man known as Big Papi, played for the Miracle in 1997 and later the Twins before going on to fame as a Red Sox slugger. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2022. 
Former Miracle catcher Joe Mauer, who won three American League batting titles with the Twins, was elected to the Hall of Fame in January and will be inducted into the Cooperstown shrine this summer. 
The Everblades have been a part of the Southwest Florida sports landscape nearly as long as the Miracle/Mussels. 
The Everblades started playing at what is now called Hertz Arena in 1998. They are affiliates of the Florida Panthers of the NHL and the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. 
The list of local pro teams continues growing. 
In January, an expansion team in the United Soccer League was awarded to Naples and will play at the Paradise Coast Sports Complex starting in 2025. 
Clearly, Southwest Florida offers a wide range of sports options. 
But don’t expect luge competition anytime soon. 

 Twins spring training, Lee Health Sports Complex, Fort Myers

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