NEW PORT RICHEY — Coach Jason Messamore has felt the changes in Gulf's hallways.
When he took over the program in March after serving as an assistant at East Lake, students were harsh toward his football team. After the Buccaneers struggled through a winless 2012 season, some asked if their team would score a touchdown.
Almost six months later, after a near win in the spring game and a respectable kickoff classic performance against Berkeley Prep, students and teachers are encouraging players to keep progressing.
"It only gets nicer the better you play," Messamore told his team after Tuesday's practice.
His Buccaneers have a chance to find that out Friday when they open the regular season against another program trying to rebuild.
Gulf has lost 12 consecutive games. Wiregrass Ranch has dropped 22 in a row and also boasts a new coach, Mike Lawrence.
"They're in the same boat as us," Messamore said.
The Bulls have tangible evidence of improvement after jamboree wins over Sunlake and Wesley Chapel and a preseason win over Mitchell, but progress has been more incremental at Gulf.
The Bucs took baby steps in the spring jamboree with an overtime loss to Weeki Wachee, scoring almost twice as many points (49) as they did in the 2012 season (29).
"My first touchdown, we were all hyped," quarterback Avery Welch said. "It was definitely disappointing to lose the game, but I think it gave the whole team confidence in themselves.
"We could have won that game."
If Gulf ends its losing streak this season, Welch will likely be a key reason, especially after the recent departures of quarterback Ke'Shaun Peters and wide receiver Andre Wilson.
Welch, a powerful junior, accounted for three touchdowns and rushed for more than 200 yards in the jamboree. He ran the ball so hard during Tuesday's practice that a collision knocked loose a piece of his shoulder pads.
Welch played quarterback some as a sophomore, throwing two of Gulf's three touchdown passes, but he was more natural at running back. He emerged as the starting quarterback this fall and has refined his mechanics and touch while adding new wrinkles to his rushing attack behind an improved offensive line.
"In the last game he made a couple spin moves and stiff arms that he didn't even realize he had," Messamore said.
Gulf players and coaches said the atmosphere around the program has drastically improved since last season.
Coaches are more disciplined yet more upbeat. Players are putting in more effort and staying after practice for more repetitions. Body language didn't sag in last week's 23-7 classic loss to Berkeley Prep, even in the final minutes.
Now they're trying to take the next step: Learning how to win.
"(We) want to play," wide receiver Montavious Reed said. "We're hungry right now for this win."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.