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Fabulous four hard to replace

Mike Quarto escaped a roaring gymnasium and did something extraordinary - he cried.

Gulf's three-season reign had come to a screaming stop.

Quarto gave one final postgame speech, then walked away.

How do you move on when there's no more practice? Who do you count on to replace four starters?

And what do you do for an encore after one of the greatest turnarounds in Pasco County history?

The loss - to Orlando Bishop Moore, 45-33, in Saturday's Class 4A, Region 2 final - squeezed Quarto hard and forced tears to stand on his eyelids.

Three days later, he was still coping with the loss.

"They took me off suicide watch noon on Monday," Quarto said. "The loss of Tiara Cook, Turquoise Sampson, Nicole Allison and Santana Lennon. You don't get a group like that very often."

Quarto took over in 2003-04 and enjoyed immediate succes. He spent the previous six seasons as a boys assistant at River Ridge and Gulf and learned his style from mentors such as former River Ridge coach Nick Chaykowski, Gulf boys coach Steve Feldman, and University of Tampa coaches Richard Schmidt and Tom Jessee.

Quarto knew nothing about coaching girls.

He inherited a team that finished 2-19 in 2002-03. He gained then-sophomores Cook and Allison. Cook considered a transfer, but Allison begged her to stay one more season.

The arrival of Quarto and Dominique English, then a freshman, changed everything.

Finally, there was a core of talent and a coach determined to win.

Quarto learned his girls had an aptitude for fundamentals and could quickly forget losses.

His first major test was to overcome the loss of English - his freshman point guard - to a meniscus injury for much of that first season.

The Bucs went 17-8 - remember, they were 2-19 the year before - and came within one point of a state tournament berth.

Quarto was just getting started.

"Before we arrived there was no organization," Quarto said. "There was no team spirit. There was nothing. The first thing we instilled was that we were a family. We did everything together."

Gulf's family grew with Mitchell transfer Turquoise Sampson. Many considered her move a shift in power from Mitchell to Gulf.

Quarto spent the summers tailing his girls to AAU events from Cocoa Beach to Tallahassee. He also coached them in local recreation leagues.

The prognosticators were validated after the Bucs went 25-2 in Quarto's second year. Plant handed them their lone regular-season loss by one point.

Gulf earned its first playoff win in Year 2 before losing in the region semifinal to Winter Haven, 68-29.

Gulf was officially a force.

The Bucs strengthened once more with Zephyrhills transfer Lennon.

A potent starting five and the lessons from 2004-05 had many believing Gulf would reach the state final.

Again, Gulf fell just once by one point in the regular season.

And instead of the final four, the run ended one win shy in Orlando, two shy of a state title.

Though reaching the state final was the goal, no one would call this season a failure.

Gulf had win steaks of 13 and 16 games and outscored its opponents by an average of 68.6-54.6. The Bucs' most decisive win was 101-14 in Game 3 against Zephyrhills. They also set a record from most wins with 29.

How hard has it been for Pasco County teams to reach the final four? The last to do it was Zephyrhills in 1986.

And it might be a long time before we see another team with that potential.

- Contact Izzy Gould at (813) 909-4612 or sportsjournalistgmail.com.

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