Redistricting has brought new competitors into the fray for boys soccer this season, with area schools eager to reverse postseason misfortunes.
The holiday break finds the Citrus Hurricanes, Crystal River Pirates and Lecanto Panthers fighting for the top of their respective districts. The season is the first with the reformatted playoffs to go with new conferences, making for tighter competition and more on the line.
The Hurricanes and Pirates now play in District 4A-5 with South Sumter, Weeki Wachee and Dunnellon rounding out the competition. Lecanto lands in 5A-6 with new opponents Chamberlain and Freedom that they haven’t played before, essentially a preview of what teams typically face in the regional playoffs.
Seven Rivers Christian is back in a district for the first time in a long time, with new coach Steve Meehan at the helm.
Winners of district championships get an automatic bid in the regionals, while the remaining field is determined by the Ratings Percentage Index of wins and losses and strength of schedule. While programs have struggled to either reach or advance through the latter tournament, this season might provide the best shot at breaking that streak.
Hurricanes head coach Josh McKenna said he doesn’t see any added pressure from the new format, saying the goal is always continued progression and to win every game.
"I don’t know if the format really changes things, from that standpoint. If you win your district, you go in," he added. "For us, it doesn’t matter who we play; every time we step on the pitch, we want to win."
The ’Canes have advanced the last three seasons, but it’s gone much differently for their rivals. The Panthers last made a trip in 2017, while the Pirates are in the midst of an eight-year drought. While the playing field has been leveled competitively, teams are still looking for the right fits for success.
Panthers coach Doug Warren brought a state championship to his school in 2004, the only title in its history and amongst the county teams. It took everyone working as one to ultimately go 5-0 through the state playoffs that year.
"The biggest thing with that group was there were no selfish players. We didn’t have anybody who worried about being the one to score the goals or the one who did this or the one who did that," Warren continued. "They all played together, they worked really hard. Those are the things that are going to come with this group playing."
The Panthers have seen a young team last season mature into a seasoned one with high potential in key areas. Senior goalkeeper Connor Perez and defender Ryan Rogers are cornerstones of the back line, with senior forward Zachary Quirk and junior attacker Dominic Santinelli threats up top.
Fundamentals are key, with the team’s focus on passing, working the ball around and to the outside. With a 20-player roster, Warren remarked, "We need everybody to be a key. One person is not going to win it for everybody."
The Pirates field the youngest squad, with five players brought up from junior varsity.
"We’re at the beginning again. A couple years out and I think we’ll be back in the game of being competitive every game," coach Mark Callaway said. "I think we’ve got a good chance this year of being competitive and going for a little bit of distance in the playoffs."
If the team can win key matchups with Citrus and Weeki Wachee, Callaway feels his team has a chance. He knows the key to a postseason run, with five straight trips before finding himself in the current slump. He gets leadership in senior forward Noah Bresson and senior goal keeper Seth Cox. Once a missing element, a lot of players now play together year-round through club soccer.
Callaway wants to see less individual focus and more team-first play, improved chemistry and game-time decisions, such as when to pass versus dribbling. "We can’t have mental lapses. We have to be strong in those close games and key games," Callaway continued. "In the past, we made mistakes that cost goals late in the game."
McKenna sees a much different team from last season, initially with fewer scoring threats and a younger core. Coupled with several injuries at the start of the season, he’s looking at a team in search of its identity.
"We’re just trying to find out who we are right now," he said of shifting players into different roles to find a fit. "So for us, it’s time for us to process and figure out a lot of things, from attacking to defensively."
Like in years past, a key component for the ’Canes success is their defense, with goalkeeper Santiago Mira stepping back into a role he earned by his move up from junior varsity last year. Junior defender Graycen Neander will also solidify the back line.
Where the Hurricanes look to improve is offensive output after inconsistent play with McKenna saying there were games they had their chances, looking for that final product he said will be a contender.
He finished, "I think it’s a product of figuring out the guys who are going to put the ball in the back of the net for us."
Citrus Hurricanes, 4A-5
Last season: Regional quarterfinal (3-1, Seabreeze)
Opponents: Crystal River, Dunnellon, South Sumter, Weeki Wachee
Coach: Josh McKenna, 11th year
Key losses: Zane Zacke, F; Mark Provost, F; Sebastian Anderkin, GK; Karyl Sonza, M
Key returns: Jarimyah Cook, F, Jr.; Kevin Bacon, M, Sr.; Colin Doyle, M, Sr.;
Key newcomers: Santiago Mira, GK, Jr.; Tanner Toess, M, Jr.; Graycen Neander, D, Jr.
Crystal River Pirates, 4A-5
Last season: District quarterfinal (3-1, Vanguard)
Opponents: Citrus, Dunnellon, South Sumter, Weeki Wachee
Coach: Mark Callaway, 15th year
Key losses: Gabriel Romero, F
Key returns: Noah Bresson, F, Sr.; Seth Cox, GK, Sr.; Naed Rivera-Rodriguez, So.; Taylor Martin, D, Sr.
Key newcomers:Austin Edwards, M, Fr.; Carson Edwards, D, Fr.; Zachary Van Fleet, M, Fr.; Ryan Ovaska, M, Fr.; Brysen Leffew, M, Fr.
Lecanto Panthers, 5A-6
Last season: District quarterfinal (8-0, Citrus)
Opponents: Chamberlain, Freedom, Land O’ Lakes, Pasco, Springstead
Coach: Doug Warren, 19th year
Key losses:Andrew Knighten, F; Andrew Hope, F
Key returns: Connor Perez, GK, Sr.; Ryan Rogers, D, Sr.; Blaise Bresnahan, M, Sr.; Zachary Quirk, F, Sr.; Dominic Santinelli, F, Jr.
Key newcomers: K-sea Quillen, M, Fr.