Peter Livingston always wanted to be a girls basketball head coach. When the varsity job at Wesley Chapel High came open before the 2014-15 season, the former junior varsity coach at Wiregrass Ranch put his name in the hat.
“I was the only person who applied for the job,” he said.
The Wildcats’ job wasn’t exactly coveted at the time. The team finished the previous season 5-17. In the three years before Livingston took over, they had won a combined 18 games.
It was going to be an uphill battle. That was apparent in the first game he coached for the Wildcats. Ironically, it was against Wiregrass Ranch.
“We were down 52-3 at halftime,” Livingston said. “I knew we weren’t as good as Wiregrass, but not 49 points worse.”
The first season ended 7-17. So did the second. Things started to change in the 2016-17 season. The Wildcats had a winning record, 15-9. A pair of talented freshmen, Kayla Grant and Ariana Rivera-Heppenstall, joined the team. The future looked bright.
Until things got dim again.
Grant transferred to Brooks DeBartolo for her sophomore year. Rivera-Heppenstall was out all season with a knee injury. The Wildcats took a step back with a 6-17 record.
“I went from having a stacked team to losing some key players,” Livingston said. “That’s the way sports is. You’re going to have ups and downs as a high school coach.”
Grant came back to Wesley Chapel as a junior. Rivera-Heppenstall recovered from her injury. Freshman Emari Lewis made an impact right away. The Wildcats were suddenly a team to beat. They went 22-3 last season and made the region tournament.
Livingston can thank Wesley Chapel’s dance department — and especially dance teacher Claire Andrews — for Grant’s return.
“I made the decision to leave because I thought it would be better competition and a higher level (at annual playoff contender Brooks DeBartolo),” Grant said. “But the main reason I wanted to come back to Wesley Chapel was the dance department. It’s a lot of fun. I like the teacher. It helps me in basketball tremendously. Running and jumping and how to land different ways.”
And she’s no pushover on the court.
“It starts with her intensity,” Livingston said. “She’s a competitor and a good leader. She calls teammates out when they need to be called out and she also picks them up when they need it. And her rebounding and defense is unmatched. Even though she isn’t a 6-footer, she acts like she is.”
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Grant, who entered the week averaging 13.7 points and a team-best 12.5 rebounds per game, said she hasn’t had much success recruiting many other teammates to join her in dance. But Rivera-Heppenstall is one of the players who has at least tried it. The two have played basketball together since middle school.
Rivera-Heppenstall’s main obstacle was overcoming her knee injury. It forced her to miss the end of her freshman year and all of her sophomore season. She returned at full speed last season and contributed 14.8 points per game. She’s at 10.8 points per game so far this season.
“It hurt to not be able to play,” she said. “But I had to do all the right things in order to get back. I’m able to do all the things that I used to. I like playing defense the most. It’s the most important part of the game. I want to always get the rebound or get the steal.”
Lewis and junior Mia Nicholoson have provided depth for the Wildcats, who are 9-0. They both score in double figures — 14.2 and 11 points, respectively — per game and play good defense.
With several other role players, Livingston believes this team has a chance to go far.
“I would say by far this is the best team I’ve had,” Livingston said. “And I think I’m better as a coach. I feel more proficient in what I’m doing. But we have juniors and seniors on this team and that is really what you want.”
Perhaps the biggest motivation is how last season ended. The Wildcats lost by one point in the region quarterfinals to Crystal River. Rivera-Heppenstall sprained her ankle in the first quarter and didn’t return. Grant had a one-and-one free throw shot to tie or win with no time on the clock, but missed the front end.
“It’s just one of those things that makes you better in the end,” Grant said. “I’m gunning for them this time around. I’m very motivated to get further than we did last season.”
Contact Rodney Page at email@example.com. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.