Returning All-Chronicle selection Derrick Batson of Lecanto delivers a pitch to the plate last spring. A new high school baseball season is underway and the four county schools look to compete across three different districts.

Every year about this time, Seven Rivers Christian starts a season expecting it to end with a Final Four appearance.

Twice in the past five years, the Warriors have achieved that goal. Even when they have fallen short, they have at least made regionals every year since 2009.

The expectations haven’t lowered, but the road to get there has certainly gotten more bumpy.

“We’ll try and win our district. After districts it gets a whole lot tougher,” Seven Rivers fifth-year head coach Travis Phillips said. “They’ve squished together 2A and 3A, for the most part. We’re still a rural county. We expect to win. We expect to win our district. But the level of difficulty has increased.

“It’ll be tougher for us to go as far as we always have, but we’re certainly not going to use that as a crutch. We expect to win our district and move on and once we move on we hope to go to the Final Four again.”

That talent is still there for the Warriors, who went 22-5 in 2019 and reached the Elite Eight. It starts with senior Carson Pillsbury.

The right-hander has been playing for Seven Rivers so long he actually was the starting catcher in the 2015 state semifinal game. But he has reached his final prep campaign before signing with the University of Florida.

He’s a two-time All-Chronicle pick and was a Player of the Year finalist last season.

He’s coming off a junior campaign in which he hit .473, with eight doubles, two triples and 16 home runs, to go with 29 runs scored and 46 RBI through 24 games.

Yet that only tells half the story of his dominant performance. On the mound, he was 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA, fanning 74 batters across 43 innings.

“I hope that he stays within himself and leads, and shows the young guys how to lead by example,” Phillips said. “We’ve got a good crew around him. I hope he understands he doesn’t have to carry the team.”

Juniors Josh Nelson (.397, 26 RBI in 2019) and Hunter Looper (.353, 28 RBI) are also returning All-County picks. Nelson will slide over from first base to second base, with junior Brock Weed moving from second to shortstop, replacing graduated Zavier Delgado.

Looper goes from third base to catcher, filling in the void left by All-County selection Caleb Wharton, who also graduated.

“We’ve got more power than last year. We’ve got good size. We’ll score some runs. I think the defense will be OK as a whole,” Phillips said. “The biggest question mark will be pitching behind Carson.”

Phillips believes the Warriors have the arms. Weed threw 12.1 innings across nine games last season, going 1-0 with a 1.14 ERA, striking out 19 though also walking 10. Lefties Logan Alford, a sophomore, and Keaton Piermatteo, a senior, join Weed amongst the group Phillips said must step up.

As for the offense, Phillips said to expect more small ball out of his lineup. He felt the team “got vanilla and bland” at the plate last year and it proved costly in the playoffs.

But getting to the postseason isn’t the slam dunk it has been in the recent past. Only district champions are guaranteed to advance now, and the newly formed District 2A-9 won’t be a cakewalk.

“Bishop McLaughlin will put a lot of pressure on us,” said Phillips about a Hurricanes team that went to the

3A Final Four in 2015 and 2017. “Cambridge is good. Academy at the Lakes is restructuring its whole lineup. To win the district championship will be a little tougher.”

Looking to step forward

Crystal River showed signs of progress by the end of last season, finishing 12-11 in its first year under head coach Devin Dominguez.

However, there’s the matter of replacing Caleb Dix, the Chronicle Player of the Year who hit .514 and struck out 61 batters in 40 innings. In fact, the Pirates are without their top four in batting average from 2019: Dix, Lane Ewing, Seth Parnell and Daniel Sayadoff, who transferred to Lecanto.

“We shocked people last year, especially those around Citrus County, with the record we had,” Dominguez said. “Instead of just wanting to win, our motto is, ‘Expect to win.’

“I like what I’ve seen so far. We’re still trying to mix and match to get a core group of guys. Last year was a feeling-out process.”

Junior outfielder Anthony Agate was the top hitter last year among the returnees, posting a very respectable .302 average. But in losing Dix and Ewing, the Pirates must account for a combined 81.2 innings pitched.

“Our strength is going to be speed. We have a lot of kids that can run and move real fast,” Dominguez said. “Our weakness is we need to find solid starters on the mound.

“The measuring stick will be making the postseason, being district champs and ensuring ourselves a playoff spot.”

The Pirates have to contend with Dunnellon, a regional finalist that knocked out Crystal River in districts last year, along with Lake Weir, Leesburg and Tavares in District 4A-5.

Also in that district is Citrus, which has a different head coach, but a familiar one. Jon Bolin guided the Hurricanes from 2003-10, then after a two-year stint as head coach at Seven Rivers he has been an assistant back at Citrus since 2016.

“It’s not like I had to move into a new field,” Bolin said. “Knowing the administration makes things a lot smoother, as well.

“We have a positive outlook. You look up and down our lineup and it’s a potentially formidable lineup. So far we’ve been pretty good on defense. We’ll go as far as our pitching takes us.”

The ’Canes (11-14 in 2019) lost their three leaders in innings pitched, so they’ll have to essentially start over on the mound. Tim Flippen, Mikey Gatto, Jacob Palmeri and Chris Walley are expected to be the primary starters.

They also have to replace their top two hitters, All-Chronicle picks Evan Badger and Chance Yates, and hope players such as Connor Bishop, Jared Daigle, Flippen, Gatto, Mikey McSharry and Walley can spark the offense.

“It’s one of those districts where if you get through you have a chance to advance pretty far. I think we match up pretty good,” Bolin said. “Our expectation is to win the district. If we don’t win the district, find a way to get into the (regional) playoffs. It’ll be a grind. The guys have to come prepared every day.”

Lecanto, coming off a 10-17 season, has an interesting mix of eight seniors and five sophomores, but no juniors.

“We’ve got some experience and we’ve got some youth,” said Lecanto head coach David Logue, in his 11th season. “The seniors are going to be strong. … The sophomores are having some growing pains here and there.”

Derrick Batson, an outfielder, is one of the seniors back in the fold, after making the All-Chronicle squad with a .306 average. He also threw a team-high 45.2 innings, compiling a 3.22 ERA and fanning 41 batters.

Another senior, Jakob Brace, was 4-2 with a 2.37 ERA while striking out 38 in 41.1 innings. Plus Sayadoff is a strong addition, as the infielder hit .324 for Crystal River and should add pitching depth along with sophomore Steven Sams.

“On defense we’re versatile. A lot of guys are going to play a lot of different positions,” Logue said. “The offense, I was pretty pleased with in the first two preseason games.

“If we can get it together and get that culture of wining. I think we can do some good things this year.”

In District 5A-5, the Panthers are joined by Belleview, Gainesville, Vanguard and two regional teams from last season, Lake Minneola and longtime district foe Springstead.

“I told the guys, we’re here to win every game no matter the competition,” Logue said “We’ve got to come ready to win every game no matter who we play. That mind frame needs to be there.

“I think this is one of my more talented teams, if we can get the younger guys to come along. I think we have a shot to be up near the top if everything falls in line.”

Citrus Hurricanes

Head coach – Jon Bolin (1st year current tenure, 9th overall)

Key returnees – Connor Bishop (Sr., C), Jared Daigle (Sr., 1B), Tim Flippen (Jr., 1B/P/OF), Mikey Gatto (Sr., P/2B/OF), Nick Lopez (Sr., OF/C), Mikey McSharry (Jr., INF), Jacob Palmeri (So., SS/P), Will Patrick (Sr., P/OF)

Key losses – Evan Badger, Nolan Bescher, Cody Cyr, Chance Yates

Key newcomers – Tyler Cameron (Jr., C/OF), Blake Clark (Jr., 3B/P), Tyler Denham (Jr. P/OF), Brycen Kersh (Jr., OF), Joey Panyko (Jr., OF), Chris Walley (Fr., P/1B/OF), Cason Williamson (Fr., INF/OF)

Crystal River Pirates

Head coach – Devin Dominguez (2nd year)

Key returnees – Anthony Agate (Jr., OF), Anthony Cairone (Sr., P/1B), Alden Hudak (Sr., OF), Jaden Pearson (Sr., 2B), Tyler Richardson (Sr., UTIL)

Key losses – Hurley Campbell, Caleb Dix, Lane Ewing, Seth Purnell, Daniel Sayadoff

Key newcomers – Riley Houle (So., C), Anthony Hyche (Jr., INF/P), Tristian Jenkins (Jr., OF), Jeffrey Jones Jr. (So., INF/P), Patrick Patella (So., C), Lane Stevens (Jr., 3B)

Lecanto Panthers

Head coach – David Logue (11th year)

Key returnees – Derrick Batson (Sr., P/OF), Jakob Brace (Sr., P/C/1B/3B), Brandon Dirosa (Sr., INF), John Rogers (Sr., P/1B), John Sams (Sr., UTIL), Jesse Thomas (Sr., P/OF).

Key losses – Joe Caggiano, Chris Dirosa, Nick Morales

Key newcomers – Riley Brown (Sr., OF), Aidan Finamore (So, OF.), Luke Malmberg (So., P/INF), John Pattridge (So., P/3B), Steven Sams (So., P/UTIL), Daniel Sayadoff (Sr., P/INF), Evan Silverthorn (So., 1B/OF)

Seven Rivers Christian Warriors

Head coach – Travis Phillips (5th year)

Key returnees – Gary Baker (Jr., OF), Hunter Looper (Jr., C), Josh Nelson (Jr., 2B), C.J. Phillips (Jr., 3B), Carson Pillsbury (Sr., P/C/3B/SS), Regan Schroeder (Jr., 3B), Brock Weed (Jr., SS/P)

Key losses – Eric Brady, Zavier Delgado, Caleb Wharton

Key newcomers – Logan Alford (So., 1B/LHP), Clayton Chesnutt (Fr., P), Keaton Ferrence (So., OF), Keaton Piermatteo (Sr., 1B/OF/LHP)

Prep Zone

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Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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