Daunte Gunter

Daunte Gunter of Crystal River, center, splits a pair of Nature Coast defenders during last season’s district championship game, won by the Pirates. Gunter leads a Pirate squad looking for a repeat performance this winter.

Finally, Citrus County teams won’t have to wade through Shark-infested waters as they advance through postseason play.

For the past four seasons, Nature Coast has loomed large as the top dog in the district occupied by Citrus, Crystal River and Lecanto.

But redistricting has significantly altered the landscape. While county squads will still cross paths with the Sharks in Gulf Coast Eight conference action, and could potentially face them in regionals, they won’t see them in District 4A-6.

"We lost Nature Coast, we got The Villages," Crystal River head coach Jim Ervin said. "The Villages has turned into a basketball school."

Indeed, the field for the new 4A-6 – including Central, Hernando, South Sumter and Weeki Wachee – didn’t exactly get off easy. The Villages are coming off a Final Four campaign in 2018-19, their second trip to the state semifinals in three years.

Although it’s worth noting that the Buffaloes graduated their three leading scorers. Most notably, they’ve lost Tre Mann, a McDonald’s All-American who began this season in the University of Florida’s starting lineup. With Mann no longer in the fold, The Villages could be more vulnerable than recent history suggests.

Perhaps that will open the door for a team like Crystal River. The Pirates in particular have had a rough time getting past Nature Coast, having lost to the Sharks in the 2016 district final and 2017 district semifinals.

Then last season Crystal River pulled off a stunning upset of Nature Coast in the district championship game, Ryan Helmdach sinking a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Pirates’ their first district title in 25 years.

Crystal River went on to knock off Zephyrhills, notching its first-ever regional triumph, but dropped the rematch with Nature Coast in the next round. In those four years sharing a district with the Sharks, the Pirates went 1-11 against them.

But that’s all in the past, and now Crystal River is trying to build on what could be considered the finest season in program history, one that saw it finish 23-7.

"We’re pretty optimistic," said Ervin, starting his sixth year at the helm. "After winning the district title, we’re pretty eager to get back to that point. That’s our goal every year, but it’s something we’ve done and the kids understand what it takes to get there."

Graduations have hit hard. Last season’s Chronicle Player of the Year, forward Cayden Gunter, and the 2016-17 Player of the Year, point guard DeAndre Parker, are both gone.

Those won’t be easy voids to fill, but the Pirates still have Cayden’s younger brother, Daunte Gunter, coming off an All-Chronicle sophomore season in which his length and athleticism made him a threat on both ends of the floor.

It was actually Daunte Gunter who snared an offensive rebound and found Helmdach for the game-winning shot in the district finale. Helmdach, a sharp-shooting guard, figures to take on a larger role as a senior this season.

Junior guard Ian Rose has transferred back to Crystal River, where he played as a freshman, after averaging 13.2 points and 3.1 assists for Lecanto in 2018-19. He and Gunter will attempt to replace Parker in handling the point guard duties.

That trio figures to make the Pirates a formidable foe in 4A-6. If they can’t earn back-to-back district titles for the first time, they’ll have to hope they finish high enough in the MaxPreps.com rankings to still advance to regionals.

"My expectation is for Daunte to be the best player in our district and our area," Ervin said. "We’re very talented offensively. Our other strength will be playing tough on the defensive end. We’ll be physical and put pressure on the ball. Our concerns are rebounding and free throws.

"Our district is not going to be an easy one. I think our district is pretty wide open. It’s us and The Villages in the beginning, but no one knows until you tip the ball up and play.

"It comes down to scheduling. How well can you schedule and how well can you compete? It is what is. We go play."

New beginnings

For Citrus, Lecanto and Seven Rivers Christian, it’s a season for starting over. All three have taken massive personnel hits.

The Panthers ended a streak of four straight losing records by going 12-12 and seemed on an upswing under head coach Frank Vilardi.

But Vilardi, entering the third year of his current tenure as headman, has just one returnee, senior center Anthony Panella. He and his staff are banking on a bunch of newcomers that include sophomores Josh Berrios, Colby Ellis, Jaysus Jones and Nick Post, as well as juniors Preston Koller, Austin Recta and D.J. Smith.

"We’re excited about this group. They’re young but they play hard, so we’re excited about it," Vilardi said. "We’re going to press, we’re going to run, we’re going to shoot. A lot of perimeter shots and playing up-tempo, playing Lecanto basketball.

"We’re going to be balanced. We’ll see who has the hot hand and has the best matchup and take advantage of that."

The Panthers are in a completely new district. They join Belleview, Jones, Lake Minneola, Lake Weir, Leesburg and Vanguard in 5A-5, and the only one on the regular-season schedule is Lake Weir.

"We’ll look to compete in our conference and try to win as many games as possible, and use that to get ready for the district," Vilardi said. "With the kids so young, I’m not going to put a number as far as wins and losses, but the program is trending in the right direction.

"The mentality of the program has taken a big step forward. The kids are working hard, they’re unselfish. It’s been a fun group all summer long and I’m looking forward to coaching them."

Likewise Citrus (5-19 in 2018-19) graduated its four top scorers from a season ago. Juniors Drake Gonzalez and Trey Kovach and seniors Allain Dreyfus and Micha McFarland are the returnees.

"Our starting five is key because they’re the only ones who have been in our program," said Tom Densmore, starting his 16th year as Citrus head coach. "We have a bunch of other guys learning, trying to fill roles and catch up. We have a lot of potential, but right now we’re a work in progress.

"I think we can be decent. We’ll be in the middle of the district standings I hope. It’s really how the second five come along that will determine that. You’ve got to have role players step up. If that group comes along, then my outlook moves up."

Junior center Alex Mendigutia got off to a tremendous start in Monday’s season opener at River Ridge, with 23 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks. So the Hurricanes could have some building blocks for the future.

"I think we can be decent this year but I want them to look at this as a two-year process," Densmore said. "We want to get as good as we can get this year, but next year we can be even better."

Seven Rivers Christian has lost guard Ben Kuntz, who averaged 20.4 points as a senior, and point guard Zavier Delgado. Junior forward Blake Daehnick and senior guard Killian Woodside are back for the Warriors (5-16 in 2018-19), who have to replace four starters.

"I think we’ll be better than last year. We’re a bit smaller but more athletic," said second-year Seven Rivers head coach Morgan McLeod. "Looking at the schedule I think we can beat our win total from last year."

The Warriors are in District 2A-4 with Cornerstone, Meadowbrook, St. Francis and St. John Lutheran.

"Expectations are low because of how we did last year. But we have high hopes," McLeod said. "Our goal is to build our wins every year, especially the first three years (as head coach) and make it deep into the district tournament."

Citrus Hurricanes

Head coach: Tom Densmore (16th year)

Key returnees: Allain Dreyfus (Sr., PG), Drake Gonzalez (Jr., G/F), Trey Kovach (Jr., G), Micha McFarland (Sr., G)

Key losses: Jalen Armstrong, Evan Badger, Gage Ellis, Darren McLean, Tony Shamblin

Key newcomers: Alex Mendigutia (Jr., C), Matt White (So., C)

Crystal River Pirates

Head coach: Jim Ervin (6th year)

Key returnees: Daunte Gunter (Jr., F), Ryan Helmdach (Sr., G), Curon Parker (Sr., G), Vinny Post (Sr., F), Steven Thompson (Sr., G), Tyler Whitley (Jr., G)

Key losses: Cayden Gunter, Daniel Nesby, DeAndre Parker

Key newcomers: Hudson Copeland (So., F), Ian Rose (Jr., G)

Lecanto Panthers

Head coach: Frank Vilardi (3rd year current tenure, 4th overall)

Key returnees: Anthony Panella (Sr., C)

Key losses: Nathan Copp, Jose Rivera, Ian Rose, Peyton Vilardi

Key newcomers: Josh Berrios (So., G), Colby Ellis (So., G), Jaysus Jones (So., G/F), Preston Koller (Jr., G), Nick Post (So., G/F), Austin Recta (Jr., PG), D.J. Smith (Jr., C)

Seven Rivers Christian Warriors

Head coach: Morgan McLeod (2nd year)

Key returnees: Blake Daehnick (Jr., F), Killian Woodside (Sr., SG)

Key losses: Zavier Delgado, Ben Kuntz, Alex Martin

Key newcomers: Jordan Kusnierz (Jr., G), C.J. Phillips (Jr., F)

Prep Zone

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

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