Crystal River High's baseball team begins pursuit of its third straight district title when it opens at home March 2 against Lecanto.
But the Pirates will have more than the familiar Lecanto, South Sumter and Dunnellon clubs they faced last year in Class 2A, District 8 to contend with this spring. All have stepped up to 3A-6. Citrus replaces Wildwood as the fifth team in the newly aligned district.
Hurricanes coach Dale Walker is happy to get away from the 11-team district in which his club battled Hernando and Pasco schools last season.
"It's a better district for us," Walker said. "Before if you were the bottom seed you had to win four games to make the finals, but now you can play just two."
All three teams in the county have questions to resolve, and some answers may emerge from the three-day Panther Invitational that was to begin Thursday between host Lecanto, Dunnellon, Wildwood and Cedar Key. Citrus also was scheduled to begin its season Thursday with a home game against Eustis.
Here's how the teams shape up:
1993 record: 12-10.
Coach: Dale Walker.
Top returnees: Todd Fehrenbach (Jr., C); Damon Bogart (Sr., OF); Chris Seaman (Sr., 1B/P).
Outlook: Citrus graduated three starting pitchers so Fehrenbach's presence behind the plate as a steadying influence becomes even more important this season. Seaman is a solid fielder at first base, while four-year starter Bogart anchors the outfield.
"The question marks for us will be defense and pitching," Walker said. "We have a lot of new faces among the pitchers, and the defense hasn't looked sharp in practice.
"We've hit the ball pretty good in practice so I hope that will carry over into the games."
Juniors Gary Whitelaw, Sean Arnold, Kenny Young and sophomore Jesse Butzer all are contesting with Seaman for starting assignments on the mound.
Crystal River Pirates
1993 record: 11-13.
Coach: Joe Buccheri.
Top returnees: David Jones (Sr., 2B); Craig Fass (Sr., SS/P); Charlie Adler (Sr., 3B); Brian Witty (Sr., 1B/P); Bobby Verlato (Sr., OF).
Outlook: Buccheri noted his teams have won district titles the last two years with about .500 records, so "the sky's the limit" this spring.
"The pitching looks okay," Buccheri said. "But you never know what the hitting will bring until the season gets under way. We've been doing a lot of hitting (in practice) but we're untested right now. You don't have pitchers throwing all-out this early so you have to wait to gauge the hitting."
Joe Buccheri, son of the coach, played a half-season with the varsity last year and is back as a sophomore infielder. Other sophomores who gained some varsity experience in 1993 that should help now are left handed pitcher/first baseman Wes Hill, and pitcher David Perry.
Among the returning juniors who started last season are outfielders Brian Rowe and Keith Fass, and catcher Jason Russ.
1993 record: 10-13.
Coach: Bruce Sheffield.
Top returnees: Jeff Dufresne (Sr., IF/P); Danny Allison (Jr., IF/P).
Outlook: The addition of junior infielder/pitcher Todd Bandhauer, who transferred from Crystal River, is a plus, and the Panthers will need all the pluses they can get to offset graduation losses.
Gone are catcher Bill Brady, a .486 hitter, along with pitcher/infielder Frank Fritz and third baseman Tom Foli. Fritz and Foli both hit over .300 last year.
Sophomore Kory Bennett goes behind the plate. He has JV and Little League experience to draw upon. The Panthers also have a good closer with senior Sean Furniss.
"Pitching is our strength with Dufresne, Allison and Bandhauer giving us three pretty good starters," Sheffield said. "But we've only had the basketball players for two practices and I'm concerned with their timing. I hope we can get enough runs, let the pitchers do the work early, and then have the bats catch up about halfway through the season."