For so many seasons, Frank Vilardi sat in the second seat assisting Chris Nichols as he built the Lecanto High boys basketball program into a consistent playoff contender.
Now in his fifth consecutive season as head coach for the Panthers, Vilardi seems to have guided the team back toward those glory days under Nichols. Lecanto went 21-4 in 2020-21, a major step forward.
But an uber-difficult district proved the Panthers’ undoing. They fell in the district semifinals to Jones, a school out of Orlando which ended up losing the district title to Leesburg, a team that reached the state semifinals.
The Yellow Jackets still loom in the newly reconfigured District 5A-5. The district, though, has a more local feel, featuring Citrus as well as Belleview, Lake Weir, Springstead and Vanguard. Leesburg is the only team in that group that advanced out of its district last season.
“We are excited to get the season started,” Vilardi said. “We had a great year last year, but we need to put that behind us and get ready for everyone’s best shot. Our conference is as strong as ever and we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Good news for the Panthers, their two All-Chronicle Player of the Year nominees are back for their senior seasons. Guard Josh Berrios ended up being named Player of the Year both in the county and the Gulf Coast 8 conference, having averaged 18.6 points and 2.9 assists.
Forward Nick Post is a two-time Player of the Year finalist, and last
season averaged 15.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.7 steals and
1.6 blocks. Athletic guard Darius Gainer, a junior, is in his third year as a starter.
Lecanto will have to find a way to replace All-Chronicle center D.J. Smith out of a committee of Burke Malmberg, Dominic Ho, Kenny Reis-Elbara and Christian McAboy. But the Panthers should still have enough talent in their backcourt to execute their up-tempo style, featuring a pressing defense and a high-scoring offense with a bevy of 3-point shots.
Citrus and Crystal River figure to be in a bit of a rebuilding mode under two relatively new coaches.
It was last season that Brandon Bristow took over the Pirates from Jim Ervin, who had successful runs at both Seven Rivers Christian and Crystal River. Having lost most of their top rotation players to graduation and transfers, the Pirates struggled but did get a strong campaign out of forward Hudson Copeland.
Now a senior and a returning All-Chronicle selection, Copeland will be part of a key collection of underclassmen including seniors Issac Edwards, William Green and David Paulen, and junior Ethan Nicoleau.
The Pirates are in District 4A-9 with Central, Hernando, Nature Coast, South Sumter and Weeki Wachee. Both Nature Coast and Central were regional qualifiers last season and are typically among the top programs in the area.
“Coming off of a 2-20 season Crystal River is looking to vastly improve,” Bristow said.
For the first time since 1987-88, Tom Densmore won’t be on the Citrus bench. Having spent the past 17 seasons as head coach, Densmore retired and turned over the program to his former player and assistant coach Craig Augustine.
The Hurricanes finished 14-12 last season, impressive considering they started 2-7 after their preseason was wiped out while they were quarantined. But the two leading scorers, Alex Mendigutia and Trey Kovach, have both graduated.
Seniors Wyatt Zacke (9.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.2 steals in 2020-21), Matthew White (8.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 blocks) and Jason Grace (8.0 points, 1.5 steals) have an opportunity to step to the forefront.
Seven Rivers is coming off a 9-9 season and fourth-year head coach Morgan McLeod has a strong returning core. His three top scorers from last season are back, juniors Haddon Sullivan (18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.6 steals) and Caleb Sullivan (15.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals), and eighth-grader J.T. Tipton (15.0 points, 2.9 assists. 1.3 steals). Those three combined to make 178 3-pointers.
The Warriors will look to challenge Academy at the Lakes and Zephyrhills Christian for supremacy in District 2A-9.
Head coach: Craig Augustine (1st year)
Key returnees: Jason Grace (Sr., G), Matthew White (Sr., F/C), Wyatt Zacke (Sr., G), Jhon Ignilhan (Sr., G)
Key losses: Trey Kovach, Drake Gonzalez, Alex Mendigutia
Key newcomers: Deonte Sesler (So., F), Jaysus Jones (Sr., G/F), Gaige Adams (Jr., F)
Crystal River Pirates
Head coach: Brandon Bristow (2nd year)
Key returnees: Hudson Copeland (Sr., F), Issac Edwards (Sr., G), William Green (Sr., F), David Paulen (Sr., F), Ethan Nicoleau (Jr., G)
Key losses: Cole Kamara
Key newcomers: Zach Hamilton (So.), Kwauntace Joseph (Fr.)
Head coach: Frank Vilardi (5th year current tenure, 6th overall)
Key returnees: Josh Berrios (Sr., G), Nick Post (Sr., F), Darius Gainer (Jr., G), Colby Ellis (Sr., G), Dominic Ho (Sr., PF/C), Kenny Reis-Elbara (Sr.), Burke Malmberg (So. PF/C), Chance Beaver (Sr., G)
Key losses: D.J. Smith, Preston Koller
Key newcomers: Jon Recta (Jr.), Donovan Foster (Jr.), Christian McAboy (So.), Connor Edington (Jr.)
Seven Rivers Christian Warriors
Head coach: Morgan McLeod (4th year)
Key returnees: Haddon Sullivan (Jr., G), Caleb Sullivan (Jr., SG), J.T. Tipton (8th, G)
Key losses: Jordan Kusnierz, C.J. Phillips