It’s game time in Lake

Written by James Combs

Longtime Lake County residents can remember a time when the citrus industry dominated the economy. Much of the county’s landscape was comprised of vast citrus groves stretching as far as the eye could see. Times have changed, however, as niche sports have become one of the leading industries driving the county’s economic engine. Facilities such as Florida’s largest sand volleyball complex in Tavares, Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont, and six championship-level disc golf courses have sprouted throughout Lake, bolstering the county’s tourism dollars and attracting high-level athletes and tournaments to the area. This month, we’re providing a closer look at some of Lake’s sports facilities, as well as some of the action-packed sporting events coming to the area in 2018. In addition, professional and local athletes have provided helpful tips so aspiring young athletes can make their dreams come true.


Blazing paddles

For a brief moment, silence fills the air and the water is calm.

Then chaos ensues. Drums begin pounding, crews erupt in high-pitch shouts, and water sprays everywhere as men and women furiously paddle and pull through the water. Surging across Lake Dora are fiberglass dragon boats meticulously carved and crafted to resemble the mythical creature. The synchronized motion of paddlers propels the boats forward, while fans standing ashore enthusiastically cheer the teams to victory.

Welcome to dragon boat racing, a sport that originated 2,000 years ago in China and has enjoyed increasing worldwide popularity in the past decade.

The Rotary Club of Lake County-Golden Triangle is hosting the 16th annual Central Florida Dragon Boat Festival March 10 at Wooton Park in Tavares. Of the teams that compete, many are locals who live in retirement communities or work for area law enforcement agencies, city governments, businesses, and organizations. Others are members of club teams who race in various dragon boat festivals throughout Florida. Mount Dora Christian Academy and Eustis High School also will have teams at this year’s event.

The 300-meter races consist of 10-person teams or 20-person teams who sit two abreast and paddle the boat. At the front of the vessel is a drummer who yells instructions to the team and pounds a drum to maintain the rhythmic beat of each paddle.

“This sport is not about brute strength; it’s about how well a group of people can paddle and pull in unison and work together as a team,” says Rotarian Rick Gonzalez, who helps organize the event. “Timing is extremely important, and that’s precisely why this is such a great team-building exercise.”

Pitching good advice

Meet Brady Singer, a pitcher who helped the Florida Gators capture the national championship at the 2017 College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. He is expected to be the top pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.

Q: For aspiring baseball players, what is the most important piece of information you can share?

A: Chase your dreams. It might sound cliché but never give up on something you want to do. If your goal is to play professional baseball, then do everything with that mindset. Be the best baseball player you can possibly be along with being the best person you can be. If the scenario doesn’t benefit your career, then don’t do it. You will fail miserably sometimes, but you have to accept failure. Sacrifices will have to be made, but everything pays off in the end.

Q: At what age should kids begin playing baseball?

A: Kids should start playing baseball whenever they ask their parents to play. I don’t believe in pressuring your kids into playing the game. It’s whenever the kid is ready.

Q: What kind of training and exercise regimens have enabled you to become a great pitcher?

A: Constant repetition and figuring out the things that work for me as a pitcher is something I always do. I have the same warmup routine every day. If it is working, I don’t change a thing. Without exercise and nutrition, then you cannot achieve the goals you want to reach.

Q: Do you recommend that youngsters play baseball year-round if they aspire to play professionally?

A: Some kids are different in this scenario. Many young kids can get burned out from playing baseball so much. Luckily, I was never and never will be one of those kids. My parents never made me play year-round; it’s just what I wanted to do. Kids need to tell their parents if they want to play all the time or if they need breaks.

Q: What is the most effective way to practice?

A: Hard. Without practicing hard each day your goals will slip. Some days you just aren’t feeling it because your body and mind are tired. I think those are the days that make you a better player. What you do when you are physically and mentally drained will define you.

Spinning their wheels

Joe LaPolla, director of the Eustis Recreation Department, has a running joke about skate parks:

“If your city doesn’t have a skate park, then it already is one.”

Indeed, when youth have no access to a public skating venue, they often skate in the streets or use handrails near public facilities to perform tricks and stunts. In other words, they enjoy their sport in places that pose safety concerns.

That’s why Joe is excited about the city’s new skate park scheduled to open by late 2018. The $500,000 facility was funded in part by a grant received from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and will be located at Sunset Island Park.

Skateboarders, inline skaters, and BMX bike riders are welcome to use the park, which is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We want the skate park to become a destination,” Joe says. “We can hold special events there and when we get lots of people to come, they’ll eat in our restaurants and purchase gas at our local convenience stores. Therefore, this park will benefit more than just skaters.”

For youth, the skate park has been a long time coming. Five years ago, a group of local skaters showed up in full force at a Ferran Park improvement project meeting and voiced their desire for such a facility.

“They spoke very maturely for their age, and then they followed up by attending city commission meetings,” Joe says. “Some of them may no longer skate, but they certainly paved the way for younger children.”

The facility is being built by Team Pain, a skate park design and construction company based in Winter Springs. Although the park will not be supervised, skaters will be encouraged to wear helmets, kneepads, and elbow pads.

A chain reaction

In addition to a skate park, the city of Eustis also is home to a new disc golf course. The 18-hole course, which is being designed by the Florida Disc Golf Foundation, will be built at Palmetto Point Park and is expected to open this spring.

“This is a growing sport, so for us to get a disc golf course here in Eustis is a big deal,” Joe says. “It will be for both recreational and tournament players.” The tree-lined course will be part of the Lake County Disc Golf Trail, a series of six 18-hole, championship-caliber courses built in city and county parks.

Steven Clenney, sports development manager with Visit Lake tourism, says the trail will be instrumental in helping the county host prestigious disc golf tournaments.

“Visit Lake is extremely excited about the Lake County Disc Golf Trail driven by Innova and the substantial economic impacts that will be generated by the many visitors who will travel here to play the courses,” he says. “Our investment in growing niche sports continues to be a winning strategy. From courses designed by a former world champion and hall of famer, Gregg Hosfeld, to ongoing management and maintenance provided by the Florida Disc Golf Foundation, we have partnered with an incredible group of disc golf experts and location hosts to ensure the trail is one of the premier disc golf destinations in the country. The Lake County Disc Golf Trail is poised to make a huge splash in the disc golf world, and we look forward to welcoming athletes from all over the world to play our courses in the very near future.”

Other courses on the Lake County Disc Golf Trail include Lake Hiawatha Preserve in Clermont, Lincoln Avenue Community Park and 9th Avenue Park in Mount Dora, North Lake Community Park in Umatilla, and one at Lake-Sumter State College’s Leesburg campus.

The spin on disc golf

Meet Joe Runnels, a disc golf player who competes in tournaments and plays at courses around the country

Q: What have you done to improve your disc golf game?

A: I bought a collapsible travel basket and set it up in my backyard and I practice putting a lot. I also began taking video of my form with my iPhone so that I could see what my form looks like from the side. I got this idea from when I played ball golf, and someone showed me a video of my swing and I immediately saw several things I was doing wrong, putting my body in positions from which I couldn’t recover and make a powerful move. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a video is worth a million.

Q: If I aspire to compete at a high level in this sport, what is the one thing I should start doing now?

A: If you want to improve at disc golf, then you have to commit some of your time to the sport. The good news is that you’ll be exercising, walking, breathing fresh air, and laughing with your friends. My second suggestion would be to join a club, figure out who the best two or three players are and then approach them for some tips. Anyone who plays disc golf regularly will be able to watch you throw and tell what you need to work on.

Q: What are the best ways to improve my putting and increase my distance?

A: Practice. Practice. Practice. My suggestion to a player who wants to improve his putting is to purchase an inexpensive travel basket and a few putters and put in the time in the backyard or at a local course. Putting is about confidence, pre-shot routine, and the space between your ears. As for increasing your distance, it comes down to one thing—technique. It has nothing to do with muscles or working out in the gym, although that certainly doesn’t hurt.

Q: What do you think are the most crucial components to being successful at disc golf?

A: Rule No. 1: Have fun. Rule No. 2: When in doubt, see Rule No. 1. Disc golf is all about getting outside and enjoying a walk in the park with a purpose. If you’re trying to get your youngster into disc golf, don’t over-coach them. Let them throw terrible shots, because everyone does it. You don’t have to be in shape and you don’t have to be young.


Give it a ‘tri’

With its gentle, rolling hills and pristine lakes, Clermont has positioned itself as a premier triathlon destination. In 2018, the city will host some of the state’s most popular triathlon events, including the 34th annual Florida Challenge Triathlon and the Great Floridian Triathlon Endurance Festival.

Clermont-based Sommer Sports, a multi-sport event timing and management company, organizes the races.

“Our events are challenging and fun at the same time,” says Alyssa Veres, the company’s administrative and operations manager. “Athletes who compete in our events are not just a number. We make sure they have a great time and are safe on the course at all times. Our setup for the races is different and extravagant.”

Here’s a lineup of races coming to Clermont, also known as the “Choice of Champions.”

March 17

The 34th annual Florida Challenge Triathlon is at Clermont’s Waterfront Park, 100 3rd St. Triathletes can compete in one of four distance races: The intimidator triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run); the long-distance aqua bike (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike); the Sprint Triathlon (.25-mile swim, 8-mile bike, 3.1-mile run); and the open-water swim (1.2-mile swim). Start time is 7:30am.

March 18

The 35th annual Great Clermont Triathlon Festival features three races of varying distances: international distance triathlon (1.5k swim, 40k bike, and 10k run); international distance aqua bike (1.5k swim, 40k bike), and international distance duathlon (5k run, 40k bike, and 10k run.) Start time is 7:30am at Clermont’s Waterfront Park.

April 7

Earth Day 5k is a 7.4-mile run around Lake Minneola. Competitors will receive a finisher medal, an event shirt, and free race photos. Start time is 7:15am.

April 8

The Lake Minneola Half Marathon and 5k allows triathletes to compete in a 13.1-mile race or a 3.1-mile race. The course, which begins at Waterfront Park, winds around Lake Minneola and the South Lake Trail. Start time is 7am for the half-marathon and 7:40am for the 5k.

April 28

The U-Run U-Pick Blueberry 5k will be at Southern Hill Farms, 16651 Schofield Road, in Clermont. Racers run a loop course around clay roads in Clermont and enjoy a blueberry pancake breakfast, as well as a pint of u-pick blueberries. The race begins at 7:30am.

May 12

The Girlz On Fire Women’s Sprint Triathlon, held at Waterfront Park, includes a 440-yard swim, an 8-mile bike, and a 3.1-mile run. Female competitors receive a finisher medal and an event T-shirt. The race begins at 7:30am.

May 12

Bra Run 5k is a 3.1-mile run on the South Lake Trail. Participants are encouraged to walk or run wearing a decorated bra. Money raised will benefit the Greater Clermont Cancer Foundation. Start time is 6pm.

June 2

The first race of the Clermont Triathlon and 5k Series begins at Waterfront Park. Competitors choose one of three races: sprint triathlon (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike, 3.1-mile run); duathlon (11-mile bike and 3.1-mile run); and aquabike (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike). Races begin at 7:15am.

July 14

The second race of the Clermont Triathlon and 5k Series begin at Waterfront Park. Competitors choose one of three races: sprint triathlon (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike, 3.1-mile run); duathlon (11-mile bike and 3.1-mile run); and aquabike (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike). Races begin at 7:15am.

Aug. 11

The third race of the Clermont Triathlon and 5k Series begins at Waterfront Park. Competitors choose one of three races: sprint triathlon (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike, 3.1-mile run); duathlon (11-mile bike and 3.1-mile run); and aquabike (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike). Races begin at 7:15am.

Sept. 8

The fourth race of the Clermont Triathlon and 5k Series begins at Waterfront Park. Competitors choose one of three races: sprint triathlon (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike, 3.1-mile run); duathlon (11-mile bike and 3.1-mile run); and aquabike (440-yard swim, 11-mile bike). Races begin at 7:15am.

Oct. 20

The Great Floridian Triathlon Endurance Festival is a 140.6-mile race (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile marathon run). Races of shorter distances also are offered, as well as an aqua bike event. They begin at 7:30am. Source: sommersports.com

Slam dunk advice

Meet Pat Burke, a former collegiate basketball player at Auburn University who played professionally for the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns.

Q: At what age should children begin playing basketball and why?

A: Playing basketball isn’t meant to be age-specific; it’s meant to be fun. I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 16. I loved the game because it involves playing both sides—offense and defense—and I enjoyed the challenge of always striving to improve my game. But I had lots of fun doing it, and that’s the key.

Q: It’s natural for kids to want to be the leading scorer on their team. Tell me how your program, HOOPS Life, helps children become complete basketball players and not just scorers.

A: We ask kids thought-provoking questions that allow them to realize you cannot just shoot all the time because you want to score more points. There’s a shared responsibility when you’re on the basketball court with your teammates. We instill that into them.

Q: What are some things kids can do at home to improve their game?

A: Get plenty of sleep and eat proper nutrition. As far as training, you have to know where you are deficient in areas. A lot of kids like to shoot three-pointers because it’s fun, but they may not work on their weaknesses, such as ball-handling skills.

Q: For aspiring basketball players, what is the most important piece of advice you can share?

A: When I started playing, one of the keys I understood is that the coach is managing the decisions on who’s playing. I wanted to find out what my coach wanted from me; not what I wanted to give him. A coach is looking to execute a strategy with everybody, and therefore communication between the player and coach is important. Ask your coach questions such as, “What area of my game should I work on?” and “What are the three most important qualities you want in a player?”

Q: You played in the National Basketball Association. What kind of work ethic is required to make it to that level?

A: Spending a lot of time in the gym is not always the answer. A player may spend all day in the gym, but if he’s not really doing anything to improve, he’s just running around in circles. Other players spend one-hour training sessions working on intricate details of their game. It’s about what specific things you’re working on to improve your game.

Gold timers

For many athletes seeking Olympic glory, the road begins at the National Training Center (NTC) in Clermont. The facility, which opened in 2001, features a 400-meter outdoor track-and-field complex, a 37,000 square-foot fitness center, an aquatic center, and a human performance lab for sports-science testing.

In 2016, the National Training Center hosted 16 Olympic hopefuls vying for a spot in the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games. They represented different sports—track and field, swimming, and triathlon. In fact, athletes from all over the world, including the China National swim team, the Canadian Military triathlon team, and the Germany track team, train at the NTC.

PURE Athletics manages the track and field facility at the NTC. The program’s founder and head coach, Lance Brauman, has coached six Olympic and 12 World Championship gold medalists. He currently trains Olympic medalists such as Tyson Gay, Tori Bowie, and Shaunae Miller-Uibo.

Track and field fans can see these athletes—and many more— at two world-class meets being held from 9am-3pm April 28 and May 12 at the NTC. Both competitions will feature Olympic-caliber talent from around the globe.

“The quality of the competitions easily rivals world-class international meets, but take place in a unique hometown atmosphere,” says Cristy Snellgroves, director of PURE Athletics Track Club. “Athletes will come to Clermont from as far away as Asia and Europe. The event is free, and spectators can sit trackside in their lawn chairs and marvel at the athleticism of these athletes.”

The PURE Athletics Track Club also trains cross country and track and field athletes ages 7-18. They will be able to showcase their talent at the PURE Athletics Invitational Meet on April 14 from 8:30am-5pm.

“Our program helps these young athletes reach their full potential by developing self-confidence, leadership skills, sportsmanship, self-discipline, and integrity through athletics,” Cristy says.

Other major NTC events include the Karen Hohne Invitational Swim Meet on April 28-29, and the Florida Rush Champions Cup, a soccer tournament, on May 19-20.

Sun, sand, and spikes

Avid sports fans do not have to drive up and down Florida’s coastline to enjoy exciting games of beach volleyball. The sport has found a permanent home in Lake County thanks to the $400,000 sand volleyball complex at Hickory Point in Tavares. The facility, which features 21 professional sand volleyball courts, is Florida’s largest permanent sand volleyball complex.

It has hosted numerous tournaments, including the Florida USA Volleyball Beach Series opener and the American Beach Tour Adult Championship.

“I’ve been involved in beach volleyball for 25 years as a player and coach, so it’s really neat to see Lake County host some of the sport’s top players and tournaments,” says Chris Hamilton, events manager of Florida Region of USA Volleyball. “To have a facility like we have is very exciting, especially since women’s beach volleyball is the fastest-growing NCAA sport. We’re very blessed that county leaders stood behind us and helped market our events.”

In 2018, fans can go to Hickory Point and watch this exciting sport, which combines speed, power, agility, and hand-eye coordination.

March 3-4

Sanctioned by USA Volleyball, the Florida Region of USA Volleyball Beach Series national qualifier is making its way to Lake County. Both adults and juniors can compete in the event. Winning teams advance to the USA National Beach Tour Championships, coming July 19-24 at Siesta Key.

March 16-17

Stetson University’s beach volleyball team, the defending champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, hosts the Hickory Point Lake Bash. During the two-day event, the Hatters face North Carolina-Wilmington, New Mexico, Florida Atlantic, and Houston Baptist.

April 6-8

The American Volleyball Coaches Association is bringing its inaugural AVCA Small College Beach Championship to Tavares. Some of the schools competing in the event include Florida Southern, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Missouri Baptist, St. Leo, and San Diego City College.

April 13-14

For the second year, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, which comprises private and charter schools throughout Florida, selected Hickory Point as the site of its beach volleyball championship.

Sources: floridavolleyball.org gohatters.com/news/2017/12/7/beach-volleyball-announces-2018-schedule.aspx avca.org/events/small-college-beach-champ.html

Helping players get into the swing

Meet Kevin Smeltz, director of instruction at Bishops Gate Golf Academy in Howey-in-the-Hills. In 2017, he was named one of the top 100 teachers in America by Golf Magazine.

Q: What is the best age for children to begin golf and why?

A: Children should begin playing golf as soon as they show interest. I recommend children use clubs suited for their age. Many companies these days offer clubs suited for younger people in terms of the weight and length.

Q: What should children concentrate on first—their putting game or driving game? 

A: I would concentrate on putting first. It’s the simplest thing as there are less moving parts. They can have some success fairly easy by putting. It’s harder to swing a club around your body, get club head speed, and keep the face square on the right angle. By having the child make short putts, they will see some success, will keep having fun, and build confidence, too.

Q: Kevin, what things did you do when you were younger that helped you become a golfing professional?

A: The first time I started playing golf I had a golf lesson. The good news was I didn’t have too many bad habits. I developed a swing that was reasonably good. Mentally I liked to tinker with stuff, and I think that had me play less golf and tinker with my swing more. Consequently, I was always trying to help people with their swings. If I had taken more time on the golf course instead of taking golf lessons, I probably would have tried to play longer instead of focusing on my coaching career. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise.

Q: What is the most effective way to practice?

A: The most effective way to practice when first starting out is to have children practice their form and the solid fundamentals—again, all while having fun. Have the child try practicing his or her grip a little bit and then have them compete. They can hit different shots to different targets and go on the golf course. At the beginning stage, it’s about creating an environment where they really love the game and want to play for a long time.

Q: For aspiring golfers, what is the most important piece of information you can share?

A: The most important piece of information I can share for aspiring golfers is to go see a coach or a PGA professional to get an analysis of your own game. Have the instructor prioritize the most important things you need to do and go from there.

Softball is a hit

Dr. Dot Richardson, who won gold medals in 1996 and 2000 as a member of the U.S. Olympic softball team, founded Clermont-based PFX Athletics in 1996. Her goal was to make the athletic dreams of girls and women come true. In 2014, the organization was selected to manage the Legends Way Ballfields complex by hosting and promoting local, state, national, and international softball events.

“I would say that 98 percent of teams who participate in our tournaments come from out of state,” says Bob Borak, director of PFX Athletics. “The players and fans really enjoy their stay in Lake County, and we’re always trying to renovate our complex to accommodate them. They know they get to play or watch games in a first-rate complex.”

PFX Athletics is bringing several high-caliber softball tournaments to the area in 2018.

March 1-30

Beginning in February and running through March, the Spring Games is the world’s largest softball event, where more than 300 collegiate teams throughout the United States and Canada descend on Lake County to kick-start their season. Games are played at the following venues: Legends Way Ballfields, Hancock Park, Lake Felter Park, McKinney Park, and West Park, all in Clermont; the Minneola Athletic Complex; and Sleepy Hollow Sports Complex in Leesburg.

May 3-5

For the seventh consecutive year, the Sun Conference Softball Tournament is being held at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont. The winning team receives an automatic bid to play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) World Series. Sun Conference members include Ava Maria University, College of Coastal Georgia, Florida Memorial University, Johnson and Wales University, Keiser University, Savannah College of Art and Design, Southeastern University, St. Thomas University, Thomas University, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, Warner University, and Webber International University.

May 25-31

Legends Way Ballfields also will host the 38th annual NAIA Softball World Series. Clermont is only the third city in Florida to host this event, according to a 2016 NAIA news release. The NAIA Softball World Series was in Pensacola in 1990 and 1992 and in Jupiter in 1999.

Sources: thesunconference.com/sports/2012/7/2/members.aspx pfxathletics.com

On a row

In recent years, a new sport has started making waves in Lake County.

Thanks to the 5,000-square-foot Clermont Boathouse, Clermont has propelled itself as a popular destination for competitive rowing events. The boathouse, which opened in February 2015, houses 20 racing boats and features two large launching docks.

The city has hosted popular races such as the 2015 Leader of the Lake regatta and the USA Canoe/Kayak’s 2017 Sprint National Championship.

“Because of the Clermont Boathouse, there is now great visibility in the area for the sport of rowing,” says Justin Knust, who serves as coach and director of the Lake County Rowing Association. “It also allows us to introduce rowing to local children. It can be difficult to make the football and basketball teams. However, with rowing, we don’t cut competitors or have a bench where they sit while others are playing. Everyone gets to participate and compete.”

The next regatta will be Aug. 4-5 and features races of 500 meters and 1,500 meters. Middle school and high school students race on Saturday, while adults race on Sunday. Justin says nobody is too old to participate in the sport.

“In indoor rowing championships, there’s an age bracket for adults between the ages of 90 and 99,” he says. “Many people begin rowing in their 50s and continue doing it for 30 years


About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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