NEW PORT RICHEY — The black cloud that hung over the team for nearly two months showed signs of fading on the sun-drenched field at W.D “Des” Little Stadium before practice Thursday.
A jovial mood emerged as the Buccaneers loosened up. There were smiles. Eruptions of laughter. An impromptu, field-goal-post dunk contest broke out in the end zone.
On the ground, two players wrestled the way siblings might fight over the top bunk bed.
For Gulf players, that sense of family is very real. They are brothers, they’ll tell you, and it’s that feeling of brotherhood that kept the team together when it easily could have broken down.
“We got through it because we stuck through it as one,” Kris Aratchiysky said. “We stuck through it as a family. That’s what pushed us to get to this day.”
The “it” Aratchiysky refers to is quite a few things because there was a lot of “it” for the Bucs to deal with.
There’s the recruiting investigation that forced the resignation of coach Jay Fulmer five days prior to the Bucs’ preseason game against Tarpon Springs. Or the two-week period before assistant coach Ken Hollar was named head coach when the Bucs didn’t know who would be taking over the program. Then came the loss of Aratchiysky and Ty’Shon Peters, two key players in the Bucs’ game plan, before one snap was taken because the pair was deemed ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association, another result of the recruiting investigation.
“It was a very difficult period for all of us,” said Aratchiysky, a transfer from Anclote who, along with Peters, continued to practice with the Bucs and watch games from the sideline. “I hadn’t even been here a year yet, and they took me in as one of their brothers. We basically became one. That was the reason why we’re still standing today, still fighting to get into the playoffs. Because we stood as one, as a family.”
Without Peters and Aratchiysky, Gulf still prevailed in its first three games. But then came blowout, back-to-back losses to district foes Sunlake and Land O’Lakes. That has Gulf facing a must-win situation tonight when it hosts Pasco — arguably the best team on the North Suncoast — if it hopes to keep alive its slim playoff hopes.
The Bucs were thrown a lifeline of sorts Wednesday when the FHSAA voted to reinstate Peters and Aratchiysky. Peters will see time at quarterback in addition to starter Will Fulmer and is one of the Bucs’ most important defensive players at safety. Aratchiysky is a lineman on defense and, as a tailback, is “a kid that can go 90 yards on any touch,” according to Hollar. Both will play tonight.
“When they said I could play, it felt like I had gotten out of a prison sentence, like I had been locked up forever and finally got out,” Peters said.
Unshackled, the Bucs are ready to unveil their new look.
“The team that we have now is the team that we thought we were going to have once the season started,” Hollar said.
Which is why the Bucs were all smiles as they practiced Thursday.
“I feel like for the past five weeks, the whole team was in a bad mood,” Aratchiysky said. “Now, it’s like the attitude is different. We’re all happy. We can’t wait to go out there and practice.”
And after being shut out 35-0 by Sunlake and losing to Land O’Lakes by 50 points in the past two weeks, Peters guaranteed that the days of Gulf being steamrolled by opponents were over.
“It will not be a blow out, I promise you that,” he said. “It’ll go down to the wire.”