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NEW PORT RICHEY — Soon after Gulf finished its 26-win season and a run to the region semifinals last year, coach Mike Quarto looked at his roster and wasn’t sure what to think.
How would the Buccaneers replace 86 percent of their offense? Who would fill the void left by the best player in school history?
“I didn’t know who was next,” Quarto said. “I didn’t know who was going to step up and lead.”
Quarto found his answers on a deep, balanced team that has reloaded and has a chance to top last year’s success. A win Thursday against Tavares in the Class 5A tournament would top last year’s win total and send the Bucs (26-2) to the region semifinals for the third consecutive year and the fifth time since 2005.
“Pretty much all of us just had to step up,” junior guard Kadejah Saunders said.
And they had plenty of holes to fill. Three of Gulf’s leading scorers — Nicole Adams (Kennesaw State), Hannah Kotzen (Brevard College) and Caitlin Corbitt (Warner University) — signed to play college basketball.
As soon as Adams, the Florida Dairy Farmers’ Class 4A player of the year, left the Bucs heard chirps from opponents that their success would disappear without their 30-point scorer.
“Then we came out and proved them wrong,” junior guard Lexy Schulman said.
Gulf had one more departure to endure when Leighlani Paselio moved to Hawaii before her senior season and took her 14 points per game with her. Quarto stopped tinkering with ways to feed forwards and started pushing an up-tempo offense built on speed to capitalize on his small-but-quick lineup.
In all, the Bucs lost 86 percent of their offense from last season, 51.8 points per game, 71 percent of their rebounds, 58 percent of their assists and 57 percent of their steals.
“But I was excited because the youth movement was going to be in full swing,” Quarto said. “I knew it was going to be a roller coaster, up-and-down ride.”
That roller coaster has looked more like an escalator headed up. Gulf has only two defeats — a 68-67 loss to Tampa Catholic in the second game of the season and a 36-35 loss to Academy of the Holy Names last month. Since then, it has rattled off 16 wins in a row by an average of 33 points.
Schulman emerged as a leader in the locker room and on the court, increasing her assists by four per game. Saunders’ scoring is also up — from 3.6 points per game last year to 16.6 this year — while Jalena Hawkins’ defense and Krissy Halm’s shooting have helped replenish a depleted roster, too.
But the biggest boost has come from sophomore Kayla Kivinski. The 5-foot-9 guard/forward averaged 5.5 points as a freshman before turning into one of Pasco County’s top players this winter. She leads the team in scoring (18.4 ppg) and rebounds (8.8 per game).
Quarto said he saw Kivinski’s potential last winter because of her drive, size and skills, although even he is surprised by her breakout season. Kivinski has been held in single digits only once this season.
“I knew what she was going to be able to do,” Quarto said. “I just didn’t know it was going to be able to happen so quickly.”
Kivinski said last season’s playing time showed her that she could be a strong varsity player. The missing component was confidence, which she honed during the summer in AAU and showcase tournaments.
“From being the sixth person to starting, I knew I had to change it,” Kivinski said. “If I kept the same attitude, it wouldn’t benefit the team.”
The soft-spoken Kivinski has become a leader. She leads the claps in the locker room and dribbles more. And she has learned not to get discouraged.
After missing seven of her first eight shots in Saturday’s district title game against Pasco, she ignited for 14 third-quarter points to lead the Bucs to their third consecutive district championship — and prove that this year’s squad can be just as strong as last year’s stars.
“It was about proving ourselves,” Schulman said, “and I think we’ve done it very well.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.