Gulf football has redeemed itself the old-fashioned way: with Gulf kids

They are the paradox on the playoff bracket. These aren’t the Bucs of Gulf High, these are the bucks of Gulf High.

Bucking convention and tradition all the way into the postseason.

“When you’re dealt not the best hand,” junior quarterback Ethan Holewski said, “and you take it and do your best with it, then that feels really good.”

Wait, what?! The Bucs stood pat with their own hand instead of poaching a few aces from the around the county? In the transfer era, that constitutes crazy talk.

Here’s something crazier: Only three years after being forced to cancel the season after seven games due to a lack of healthy players, the Bucs (7-3) are headed to the playoffs.

Via an alternate route.

Roster fluctuation has been minimal. The core of the team struggled through a 1-6 season at Gulf Middle in 2018 before finishing 7-0 and winning the county’s conference title the following year. But that’s hardly this group’s lone departure from the norm.

At a time when kids are getting private quarterback coaches before they’ve mastered long division, Holewski has played the position all of four years. And second-year coach Sean Eperjesi — who also coached the core group at Gulf Middle — sports a full beard and hair that would be the envy of some ‘80s rockers, but leads with a Parris Island approach.

“I don’t know where I’ve gotten this fierce loyalty from these boys,” said Eperjesi, whose team plays at Zephyrhills in Friday night’s opening round. “Maybe it’s the way I coach, because I promise you, I’m really hard. I’m not a players’ coach.”

Yet no local team was enjoying life more than the Bucs last Friday, when Holewski (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) tossed a county single-game record seven touchdown passes in a 52-0 rout of rival Anclote. The record-setting throw, on a wheel route to slot receiver Chris Roman, came on the first possession of the second half, prompting Eperjesi to empty his bench from there.

“Obviously, it’s always a team effort,” Eperjesi said. “The pocket was great; I don’t think (Holewski) got touched but once or twice, or hurried once or twice, in the entire game. So the pass-blocking was absolutely phenomenal. And they had a five-man front, so that’s five one-on-ones that they handled all night.”

Nonetheless, Holewski, who was raised in New Port Richey and resides a 20-minute walk from the school, has been the clear catalyst of the turnaround.

Mostly a lineman growing up, he attended Mitchell as a freshman and dislocated his clavicle that year, then transferred to Gulf when he found out Eperjesi had been hired as the school’s eighth head coach since 2010.

“We always had a really good connection,” said Holewski, who switched to quarterback on Eperjesi’s watch in eighth grade, when Gulf Middle went undefeated. “So I wanted to come back and wanted to turn the program around because he was my favorite coach and I felt like we really had a chance.”

After finishing 3-6 in 2021, the Bucs have flipped fate this fall, amid criticism that they haven’t defeated anybody.

But such jeers ring hollow considering the program’s recent history, when they quite literally didn’t defeat anybody.

From 2015-2020, Gulf had more head coaches (four) than victories (three). Most of this year’s team witnessed the futility first-hand, from nearby Gulf Middle. But instead of fleeing to other programs, they chose to fix the one in their back yard.

“It just really felt a lot better to win with everyone that I’ve grown up with than go play with a bunch of people that have already won before; they know what it feels like,” Holewski said.

“It’s a lot better when you have a lot of kids you grew up with that you’ve played with your whole life, and then you win together as a team.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls