NEW PORT RICHEY — As Gulf installed a zone defense leading up to the first week of games, the ball found its way to a hole at the elbow, the weak spot for the defenders.
Who, a coach asked, would slide over and fill the void? The answer was obvious.
“I will,” Gulf junior Kayla Kivinski said.
Kivinski will be expected to fill all sorts of holes this winter for a Buccaneers team coming off of a mass exodus but trying to prove it remains one of the North Suncoast’s top programs.
All-Suncoast coach Mike Quarto resigned in April to focus on administrative duties. Standout point guard Lexy Schulman moved to South Carolina after averaging almost 10 assists per game last winter.
All-North Suncoast guard Kadejah Saunders transferred to Tarpon Springs after putting up 17 points per game as a junior. Gulf even lost its fourth-leading scorer, guard Krissy Halm, to graduation.
“A lot has changed,” said first-year head coach Clare Ennis, who was an assistant last winter. “We are a completely new team, but we have so many similar strengths.
“This team has a really great opportunity to not only repeat from the previous seasons but also make a name for themselves.”
Kivinski and the Buccaneers have been through this before — and succeeded.
After the 2010-11 season, Gulf graduated the state’s Class 4A player of the year, Nicole Adams. It lost 86 percent of its offense and 71 percent of its rebounding from a team that won 24 games and advanced to the region semifinals.
So the Bucs just used a new cast of characters to win 28 games and make it to the region finals for the second time in school history.
“There’s always someone who’s been waiting for a time to step up,” Ennis said, “who’s been working hard and kind of stayed back in a different role and now has an opportunity to show a new role that she can play.”
Last year, that someone was Kivinski. After scoring 5.5 points per game as a freshman, she broke out as a sophomore, averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds per game to earn North Suncoast player of the year honors.
An offseason AAU circuit kept her busy and helped her get off to a fast start this winter, too. She exploded for 37 of her team’s 46 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a season-opening win over Mitchell that earned her Hot Shot of the Week honors.
“With all new players, we have to all be comfortable with each other and know what we do on the court,” Kivinski said.
She’ll have plenty of help. Junior forward Lyndsey Hetrick dedicated her offseason to conditioning with trainers and adding range to her offense. Ennis expects forward Tatiana Summers to become a brute during her sophomore season.
Although Saunders and Schulman are gone, Gulf will be quick again, with guards Syann Julian and Jalena Hawkins, and primed to make another run at a district title.
“We have a lot of stepping up to do this year. ….” Julian said.
Players to watch
Ebone Plummer, Hernando: The senior center had a strong 2011-12 season, averaging 10 points and 14 rebounds per game. She’ll be key if the Leopards hope to rebuild quickly with an inexperienced squad.
Allahon Marbra, Pasco: The speedy guard was one of Pasco County’s top players as a sophomore, scoring 17 points per game. She’s off to a good start as a junior, putting up 17 points, five steals and five assists on Sunlake last week.
Brielle Downing, Bishop McLaughlin: Hurricanes coach Joe Jasinski thinks the freshman point guard could become one of the North Suncoast’s top players eventually. Through two high school games, she’s averaging 15 points, three rebounds and 4.5 steals per game.
Alicia Artley, Fivay: The junior, an all-North Suncoast honorable mention last season, is averaging 17.3 points and has 50 rebounds this season.
Amanda Melosky, Wiregrass: Only a sophomore, the forward already leads the Bulls in scoring (14.3 ppg) and rebounding (13.8) through four games.
Teams to watch
Academy at the Lakes: The Wildcats took coach Karim Nohra on his first trip to the state semifinals. Nohra has the pieces for another deep playoff run, including senior Andrea Mauger and a pair of key additions — 6-foot-2 senior Tatiana Manuel and senior guard Timechia Cohen.
River Ridge: The young Royal Knights have already earned a marquee win — the first victory over Gulf since at least 2005. River Ridge had its first winning season in eight years last winter (16-8) and returns Leah Ford, who led the team in scoring as a freshman (15.2 ppg).
Nature Coast: The Sharks won 21 games and a district championship last year before a first-round playoff exit to Pasco. But NCT graduated its top five scorers and will have to try to rebuild this winter.
Photo: Andrea Mauger from last year's state tournament.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam. Coaches are reminded to call in game results to 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8123 each night.