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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 at 4:21 AM

Beyond the Sun and Sand: Delving into an Eclectic Athletic Landscape

Beyond the Sun and Sand: Delving into an Eclectic Athletic Landscape

Any sport that doesn’t require mountains or snow likely is played somewhere in Southwest Florida, a sun-splashed haven for nearly every sporting dream. Well, almost. We’ve got bocce and disc golf, traditional golf, mountain biking, tennis and pickleball plus spectator sports such as professional baseball and Division 1 collegiate basketball and one of the nation’s finest junior college athletic programs.

There’s also croquet and shuffleboard, swimming and tennis, softball and volleyball. That includes indoor and beach versions of volleyball.

Four Major League Baseball teams make their Spring Training homes here: the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins in Lee County, the Tampa Bay Rays in Charlotte County and the Atlanta Braves in North Port, which is in Sarasota County.

Southwest Florida is blessed with a division 1 collegiate athletic program at Florida Gulf Coast University and features a top-flight junior college athletic program at Florida SouthWestern State College. Both schools are in Lee County and have on-campus arenas for their basketball and volleyball teams as well as baseball diamonds.

In Collier County, Ave Maria University has a robust athletic program that includes men’s baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis and women’s basketball, soccer, lacrosse, softball, and beach and indoor volleyball.

The region has minor-league sports such as the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels baseball team and the Florida Everblades hockey team.  


¦ Bowling, Bocce and Croquet

Although Southwest Florida is blessed with 12 months of sunshine and warm weather and abundant outdoor sports opportunities for participants and spectators, indoor sports also abound.

Bowling alleys proliferate in the region, from north to south. A quick survey finds more than we can mention here but the list finds Bowland Beacon in Naples, Bowland Midpoint in Cape Coral and Bowland Port Charlotte in that community.

No list of local bowling facilities would likely be complete without a mention of Gator Lanes, a fixture in Fort Myers since 1978.

Bocce is another sport that includes rolling a ball but is typically played outdoors. In Southwest Florida, that means 12 months of outdoor bocce.

There are bocce courts available in community parks such as Veteran’s Community Park and Cambier Park in Naples and Veterans Park in Cape Coral.

Babcock Ranch offers bocce as well as a wide range of other sports options.

Bocce is immensely popular in many gated communities. There is a 12-team Naples Bocce League. It is comprised of teams from 12 communities such as Bentley Village The Quarry and Vineyards.

Another outdoor sport involving a ball is croquet, which also includes mallets. Croquet isn’t as widely available as bocce or bowling but croquet lawns are scattered about the region.

Babcock Ranch and the Naples Croquet & Lawn Bowling Club offer lawns as well as Wyndemere Country Club.

The oldest croquet in the area is likely the one on Useppa Island, which opened in 1978.


¦ Disc, Not Disco, Golf 

This variation of the traditional sport doesn’t require as much space or money and the courses aren’t as numerous around Southwest Florida. But we do have disc golf courses scattered around the region, from the Bird Bay Executive Course in Venice to courses in Collier County, Estero, North Fort Myers and Port Charlotte. 

The Bonita Springs Recreation Center, Naples’ Palm Springs Park Ave Maria’s North Park all provide disc golf courses.

Wait! There are more!

A disc golf course is likely nearby no matter where one resides in Southwest Florida. 

For example:  South Charlotte Regional Park and Fort Myers Riverside Church and Estero Disc Golf Course and one in North Fort Myers Community Church.


¦ Pickling Away 

The sport of pickleball didn’t even exist when many of its most fervent players were born. The sport was created in 1965. The cross between badminton, table tennis, and court tennis has boomed beyond what anybody could likely have imagined half a century ago. 

And today in Southwest Florida, pickleball courts are nearly as ubiquitous as chain drug stores. 

East Naples Community Park has 64 courts and is the home of the U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. 

But the sport is played all over the region, from the 16-court PicklePlex on the Charlotte County campus of Florida SouthWestern State College to courts in thriving new communities such as Babcock Ranch and some that have been converted from tennis courts at the venerable Fort Myers Racquet Club. 

Courts can be found down south at the Marco Island Recreation Center and up north at the Venice Community Center and in between at Cape Coral parks.

Many gated communities now also sport pickle ball courts as well as community parks in places between Marco Island and Venice. Courts have sprouted up in YMCAs in Bonita Springs and Marco Island.

The Estero Recreation Center and Brooks Community Park in Fort Myers and Camelot Park in Cape Coral all boast pickle ball courts.

No matter where one resides a pickleball court is likely a short drive or even walk away. Courts can be found at the Harold Avenue Regional Park in Port Charlotte and Gilchrist Park in Punta Gorda.

The pickleball world has certainly changed and grown since 1965.


¦ Mountain Biking 

They’re called the Florida Mudcutters, a band of mountain bikers who participate in their sport a very long way from the nearest mountain. Its 100-plus members in Collier, Lee, Hendry, southern Charlotte and southern Glades counties pedal trails from Fort Lauderdale to North Port, Gainesville and Lakeland. Caloosahatchee Regional Park near Alva in east Lee County has 11.5 miles of trails that the Mudcutters website refers to as “single track.” 

Trails are typically open from mid-October to June or July, depending on the amount of rain that has fallen (most trails are made from clay-based dirt that becomes slippery when wet). 

From the Mudcutters website: “Our goal at Mudcutters is to improve the cycling experience for new and advanced mountain bike riders, as well as to maintain and improve the bike trails at Caloosahatchee Regional Park.”

For more information, visit mudcutters.org or send an email to [email protected]


¦ Spring Training 

MLB training has been a Southwest Florida fixture for nearly a century, dating back to 1924 when the New York Giants started training in Sarasota. In 1925, Fort Myers joined the spring training party when the Philadelphia A’s started training at Terry Park.

The first Southwest Florida World Series winners were the Philadelphia As, who won it all in 1929 and 1930. They trained at Terry Park in Fort Myers from 1925-1936.

Now four teams train in the region. The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins call Fort Myers home. The Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training home is the Charlotte Sports Park and the Atlanta Braves are in North Port.

The Twins, Rays and Braves all qualified for the 2023 playoffs.

Teams arrive in February and play about 17 home games in what is called the Grapefruit League. Find out more about the 2024 Spring Training season at mlb.com.