(l.-r.) Mia Nicholson, Ariana Rivera-Heppenstall, Kayla Grant and Emari Lewis have led the Wildcats to a 15-2 record this season. (Photo: John C. Cotey)

Stopping the Wesley Chapel High (WCH) girls basketball team is no small feat.

Oh sure, maybe you can slow down senior forward Kayla Grant, the reigning Sunshine Athletic Conference Player of the Year. But, what about sharpshooting sophomore guard Emari Lewis?

And maybe, just maybe, Lewis is having a bad night with her jumper. But then, what about all-around ace Ariana Rivera-Heppenstall?

And, say you manage to throw Rivera-Heppenstall off her game, what are you going to do about slasher Mia Nicholson?

If you can’t stop them all, and you probably can’t, then you’ll have to pick your poison, because the Wildcats have combined an uncanny amount of balance with a high-octane attack and stifling man-to-man defense to form what is currently Pasco County’s best girls basketball team.

“We all contribute,” says Nicholson, a junior forward. “When River Ridge double-teamed Kayla, I stepped up. When other teams try to target one person, someone always steps in. You can’t really do that with our team. Most teams don’t have enough good players to guard all of us.”

So far this season, Wesley Chapel is 19-3, with their only losses coming to a team from Missouri, Eustis High and Brooks DeBartolo in Hillsborough County. In Pasco County, the Wildcats are unbeaten. 

Grant, Rivera-Heppenstall, Nicholson and Lewis are all averaging double figures in points and at least 2.5 assists per game. Grant is averaging nearly 12 rebounds per game, while the other three average more than 4 rpg each.

No one is surprised. The Wildcats are coming off a 22-3 season in 2018-19, and added Nicholson in the offseason. 

A former Weightman Middle School player, Nicholson attended Land O’Lakes High her first two years, and averaged 11.3 points and 4.8 rebounds last year before transferring to WCH.

“I expected this,” Grant says, without flinching. “We didn’t lose anyone from last year’s team and we also got Mia. We needed one more piece, and she filled it.”

It was a big piece for head coach Peter Livingston, who took over a struggling program in 2014-15 when he was the only person to apply for the job. The former Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH) junior varsity coach lost his first game to his former team 77-17, and one couldn’t have blamed him for changing his mind about taking the job at halftime, when the ‘Cats trailed 52-3.

“I wanted to be a head coach, and I came here to build the program, and I was determined to do that,” says Livingston, adding that he never did get discouraged.

He went 7-17 each of his first two seasons, then had a short-lived breakthrough with a 15-9 season in 2016-17, as Grant and Rivera-Heppenstall showed up as freshmen.

But, Grant left the following season for Brooks Debartolo, and Rivera-Heppenstall missed the season with a knee injury, as the Wildcats plunged to a 6-17 record.

For 2018-19, however, Livingston proved to be not only be a good coach, but a fortunate one as well. Grant and Rivera-Heppenstall returned to his program, Lewis enrolled as a freshman, and the Wildcats were back in business with a 22-3 season, including a Class 6A-District 8 championship.

The Wildcats lost 59-58 to Crystal River in the first round of the State playoffs.

With Nicholson added to the mix this season, the sky may be the limit. They will likely head into the district tournament in a little more than a week as the top seed.

“We want to go to States,” says Lewis. “We have a lot of talent on this team, and we’ve got more heart this year. When we’re playing as a team and playing together, we are tough to stop.” 

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