Coming off a Sweet 16 appearance and its third straight trip to regionals, Crystal River doesn’t want to see its program take a step back.
"This is one of the most talented teams I’ve had the privilege of coaching," said Charlie Bryant, in his 16th year on the Pirates bench and fifth as head coach. "We’ve had a lot of girls who have worked incredibly hard in the offseason and the hard work is showing in practice. … If they play the way they’re capable of playing, we’ll have a lot of wins this year."
Last season’s Chronicle Player of the Year Alysa Jenkins returns at point guard, coming off a 2018-19 campaign in which she averaged 13.4 points, 2.8 assists and 1.9 steals.
The Pirates, who were 20-6 last season, will have to make up for the graduations of All-Chronicle selections Madyson Black and Beyounce Scriven, but junior guard/forward Haley Herman has already begun picking up the scoring slack averaging 18 points through three games.
Senior Jaliyah DeVaughn, juniors Jordan Martynowski and Rikelle Trenary, and freshman Jaylin DeVaughn are also making significant contributions in the early going.
"We’ll play defense and our calling card will be what it was the last couple of years, full-court pressure and fast break," Bryant said. "With our team this year, there’s a minimum of 6-7 girls that on any given night can give us 25-30 points."
Size is one attribute Crystal River lacks, and that could again hurt in a matchup with defending district and regional champion Weeki Wachee.
Of course, it’s technically not the same district, region or even classification. Both the Pirates and Hornets are in District 4A-6 now, along with Central, Citrus, Hernando, South Sumter and The Villages. South Sumter was also a district champ last season.
There’s more onus on winning the district title than in recent decades, considering district runners-up are no longer guaranteed a regional berth for the first time since 1993. Even district records have become meaningless, with MaxPrep rankings determining district tournaments seedings and teams no longer required to even schedule district opponents.
However, the Pirates were able to set up a meeting with all the other teams in 4A-6, and there is the added wrinkle of having the new Gulf Coast Eight conference.
"I think we have the opportunity if we play the way we have the ability to play, we’ll be right there in the conversation as far as the district goes," Bryant said. "I would say our goal is the same as every year since I’ve been head coach. Our goal is going to the Final Four. Last year the ball bounces a couple different ways, we’re in the (regional) final game.
"We are a year more experienced, especially with four out of five starters returning. We have a lot of talent back from a team that was very successful last year. We want to get to the Final Four. We want to be the Crystal River team that got further than any Crystal River team before. Talent-wise we know we can do it, we just have to go out and perform."
The other local team in that district, Citrus, has a new head coach but it’s a familiar face. Alyssa Mayer takes over the top spot after serving the past two years as an assistant for the Hurricanes.
"Our main goal to try and prove each week and every practice," Mayer said. "We’re very young and that’s a positive because we can grow and increase our skill throughout the season.
"I want to move forward from basic offense and defense and try a little more intricate offense and defense. I want to teach those things to get ready for the future."
The Hurricanes went 8-15 last season and lost two key seniors in Hayleigh Reeves and Zarrie’ Washington. Sophomore Jasmine Henry returns at point guard after averaging 7.8 points as a freshman.
"We can run the floor with Jasmine," Mayer said. "I think she has the ability to be a good ballhandler and handles pressure well."
Lecanto has steadily improved since Hall of Famer Ron Allan returned to the bench three seasons ago, going from one win to eight to 13-11 in 2018-19.
But just as the Panthers appeared to be turning a corner, graduations created some voids. Player of the Year nominee Arraiol Stevens is chief among the departed, having averaged 10 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals as a senior. Taylor Carbone and Mary Recta also graduated.
But it was Trinity Keeran who paced the team in scoring, averaging 11.0 points, and the junior guard has kept up the pace at 10.7 points through the first three games this season. Senior Anna Schroeder, an exchange student from Denmark, is also paying immediate dividends pulling down 10.7 rebounds per contest, helping the Panthers start 3-0.
"We have to figure out how everyone fits together," Allan said. "We lost three seniors who all played big minutes for us.
"We’re going to be guard-dominated. There’s no other way around it. We’re not very big. We’re going to have to take care of the basketball. We’re going to have to convert when we’ve got an opportunity in transition. We have to shoot the ball well from the perimeter. I think what we have to rely on is to try to create easy opportunities for ourselves."
Lecanto is in District 5A-6 along with Belleview, Jones, Lake Minneola, Lake Weir, Leesburg and Vanguard. Allan lamented that he could only get one of those teams, Vanguard, to agree to play in the regular season, on Dec. 11 in Ocala.
"We’ll go into (the district tournament) blind to a certain extent," Allan said. "It’s a whole different mindset now.
"Continual improvement throughout (is the focus), to where we can be competitive in the district tournament. Get to .500 or better, learn how to win close games. Be competitive in the last 2-3 minutes and have a chance to win.
"I can’t say enough about them. They work hard every day. They come in and want to get better. Our theme every day is get better at something."
Seven Rivers Christian finds itself playing catch-up early in this season, but for a good reason. Several players were busy helping the volleyball team reach the state championship match.
"Volleyball just ended. We hadn’t practiced as a team before the first game," Seven Rivers head coach Gary Dreyer said. "We’re working on a new offense, trying to get that together. I think as the season progresses we’ll be pretty decent.
"We need to play to the best of our ability. If do that, we should win some games."
Senior point guard Jane Jeffes averaged team highs of 13.9 points and 4.5 assists, as well as 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 steals to earn a Player of the Year nomination last season. She returns along with senior forward Emily Jekabsons, who averaged a double-double with 10.8 points and 11.4 rebounds for the 10-10 Warriors.
There are just two other teams in District 2A-2, Ocala-based Meadowbrook Academy and St. John Lutheran. That means Seven Rivers will have to play at most two postseason games to win a district title and an automatic regional berth.
"They work hard. They never leave anything on the court," Dreyer said. "If they continue to do that and learn the offense we want to teach, I believe we’ll have a decent finish to the season."
Head coach: Alyssa Mayer (1st season)
Key returnees: Breanna Fergerson (So., G), Jasmine Henry (So., PG), Briarria Jones (So., F), Rachel Vitt (Jr., C/F)
Key losses: Hayleigh Reeves, Zarrie’ Washington
Key newcomers: Shelby Jordon (Fr., F), Annaiiah Lamb (Sr., G/F), Brooke Sanders (Fr.), Alyah Williams (Sr., F)
Crystal River Pirates
Head coach: Charlie Bryant (5th season)
Key returnees: Jaliyah DeVaughn (Sr., G/F), Hayley Herman (Jr., G/F), Arielle Hudson (Sr., G/F), Alysa Jenkins (Jr., PG), Amari Jones (Jr., C), Jordan Martynowski (Jr., G/F), Hayleigh Sanders (Sr., C), Rikelle Trenary (Jr., SG)
Key losses: Madyson Black, Beyounce Scriven
Key newcomers: Jaylin DeVaughn (Fr., G)
Head coach: Ron Allan (4th season current tenure, 22nd overall)
Key returnees: Alexis Gajcowski (Sr., PG), Trinity Keeran (Jr., G), Evelyn Mimnagh (Jr., F), Taylor Newtson (Sr., G), Denver Spaulding (Sr., G), Grace Teitelman (Jr., PF)
Key losses: Taylor Carbone, Mary Recta, Arraiol Stevens
Key newcomers: Paige Harrison (So., G), Anna Schroeder (Sr., C), Peyton Spaulding (So., G)
Seven Rivers Christian Warriors
Head coach: Gary Dreyer (8th season)
Key returnees: Patience Chesnutt (Jr., G), Jassiah DeGraw (So., F), Delaney Garner (Sr., F), Jane Jeffes (Sr., PG), Emily Jekabsons (Sr., F), Sarah Beth Kuntz (8th, G), Faith Pappas (Jr., F), Erika Villanueva (Jr., G)
Key losses: Hannah Gardner, Katelyn Kelso
Key newcomers: Joy Sullivan (7th, G)