I’m changing up the format this week as we come to the fourth week of the five-game regular season.
This week it’s pretty simple; instead of previewing the biggest games of the weekend we’re going do a deep dive in Division I & II to tell you the teams we know about, the teams we think we know about and the teams we can’t possibly know about.
With teams playing regionalized schedules and games being canceled, it’s a good time to stop and see what we’ve learned.
Next week we will do the same for Division III and IV.
We want to thank the latest members of our Gold Level players/families and coaches. These are the people supporting the coverage of the kids and our newest Players Locker Room members:
Darian Lopez-Sullivan of Dover, Carl Paff of Ohio, Tom Babaian of Pelham football, Dante Laurendi of Nashua North football, Zach Matthews of Bedford and Matt Manning of Lin Wood Basketball!
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On Saturday we will be in Newport when the best team in Division IV takes on Division III power Monadnock.
Spencer Coronis and Ian Melewski will bring you all the highlights and the post-game interview with the entire winning team!
Team’s we know are good: Nashua North, Goffstown, Bedford, Londonderry, and Dover
I’m on record that I think Dante Laurendi’s Nashua North Titans are the best team in the state and after watching our game coverage last Saturday night that opinion hasn’t changed.
The Titans defense led by Spencer Whiting and Max Ackerman looks elite and the offense has a lot of playmakers to surround Curtis Lopez-Harris and Jayden Espinol.
A showdown on October 23rd with defending champion Londonderry is going to tell us a lot about both teams.
That opening weekend win by Goffstown over Bedford Box score: Goffstown 26, Bedford 21 looks a lot better now doesn’t it?
The Bulldogs went into Londonderry and handed Jimmy Lauzon’s team their first loss since 2018 and did it convincingly.
That only makes Nick Hammond’s Grizzlies look even better. Jarrett Henault gives them experience and all-state level play at quarterback and he has a pair of terrific receivers to throw to in Peyton Strickland and Caden Perry.
With Manchester Central and Memorial left on the schedule (we plan on covering the Memorial game) they’ll be favorites in their last two games. Paving the way for a pair of home playoff games.
I’m not reading too much into the Lancers loss, although the loss of captain Eric Raza to injury hurts. Londonderry still has the juice to win back to back titles.
Eric Cumba’s Dover Green Wave close with Keene and Portsmouth Oyster-River, meaning Darian Lopez-Sullivan and Co. are likely your conference winners (with wins over Exeter and Winnacunnet in hand).
Do I think Dover is on the level of Goffstown and Nashua North? I do not but they have depth (a huge credit to Cumba in his second year as head coach) and they have a quarterback who is as smart with the football as any player in the division.
Teams we think are good: Pinkerton Academy, Salem, Exeter and Winnacunnet
Each of the teams above has good wins on their resumes but lost a marquee match-up to a conference rival (Salem & Pinkerton were supposed to square off Friday night before Wednesday afternoon's sudden cancellation).
A common theme among coaches I spoke to in the pre-season was that their teams just were not ready, or at least were not going to look anything like the coaches thought they would by Week 5.
Think about it. We had a shortened pre-season and no scrimmages were allowed. With this year being an open tournament where every team in the state will be in at least a play-in game more teams have taken the approach of the slow build.
Exeter is a team that you’re going to see get better by the week (their playmakers are very good they just need to figure it on the lines..and they will because Bill Ball and his terrific staff will get them there.).
How much of a home-field advantage is there when you’re not going into a place like Londonderry in November with 3,000 fans making noise? Teams are not as concerned about seeding as they would be in a normal year.
The teams above all could make some noise in the playoffs and we’ve seen how they stack up against the best.
For now, they are a tier below.
We don’t really have any idea how good they are: Manchester Memorial, Windham, Merrimack, and Spaulding.
Manchester Memorial’s 3-0 record is a terrific start and their team speed means they are going to be able to play with just about anyone. Rob Sturgis has done a terrific job and we plan on being in Goffstown next Saturday to cover them.
We just have no idea how they will stack up against Goffstown or teams like Bedford and Nashua North. They’ve beaten Concord and Manchester Central, both winless on the season, as well as Division II Manchester West.
What we know is that they’re a great story and a lot of fun to cover but as a true contender, they probably aren’t there yet.
Windham just opened their season last week. Jack Bryne’s team had to be sick of playing each other and after hanging in with Pinkerton for a half they got beat up in the second half.
Still, this is a very good program and smart enough to look at their three-game regular season as a warm-up for the playoffs. We just don’t know enough about them yet.
The same goes for Kevin Hebert’s Spaulding Red Raiders, who are 2-0 after wins over Division II (and down this year) St. Thomas and Portsmouth-Oyster River.
Hebert was the right guy for this job and has turned this program around (they were giving up 48 points a game 3 years ago….look it up..) in a very short amount of time.
Danny Fogarty, Kevin Casey and Max Frost have all been terrific and the defense has been better than expected.
Kip Jackson’s Merrimack team has been sidelined since an opening weekend 21-14 win over Bishop Guertin. The Tomahawks, who were supposed to play Nashua South this weekend but will now play Salem, have an experienced line setting the table for a new group of playmakers.
It’s hard to judge a team off of a single game so we will wait and see.
Teams we know are good: Plymouth, Souhegan, Kennett, and Timberlane.
I told you in the pre-season that Plymouth and Souhegan were the two best teams in Division II. That opinion has not changed, but Timberlane and Kennett are a little closer to the top than I thought back in early September.
Plymouth has won on guile and DNA early in the season. They were outplayed for portions of their season-opening win over Timberlane and in their 21-20 come from behind win over Kennett they probably had about a 6% chance to pull that game out.
They did and it wasn’t an accident or luck. It’s because they have a veteran group and the experience to know it's never over. They are 2-0 and all-state running back Joe D’Ambruoso hasn’t even gotten going yet, Cole Johnston has been their best running back.
The wins over their closest competition in the East paves the road for a conference title and a spot in the Division II title game goes through Plymouth.
Robin Bowkett’s Sabers have been terrific through 3 games, with wins over Hollis-Brookline (in a game we covered), Bishop Guertin, and Milford.
The Sabers have an all-state QB (Austin Jain, much more comfortable behind center in his second year), RB (Riley Lawhorn has been outstanding), and WR (Luke Manning, who is one of the best football players in the state).
The defense has been much better than expected and has been good across the board with Michael Maroun, Will Boyle, Alex Karpaich, and Manning leading the way.
The Sabers, like Plymouth, have played a tough schedule. The road to the top seed in the conference is Manchester West on the road followed by a showdown with Timberlane to close out the regular season.
Kevin Fitzgerald’s team looked to be a year away in the pre-season but they opened a lot of eyes across the division with their near-miss at Plymouth in Week 1.
They are very physical on the line and with games remaining at Hollis-Brookline this weekend and Souhegan to close the regular season, they’ll know exactly where they stand against the best teams in their new division.
I was very impressed by Kennett by Saturday in Gilford. Vaughn Beckwith’s team won that game with their defensive line and Parker Coleman is the Division II equivalent of Dover’s Darian Lopez-Sullivan; a very smart quarterback with the arm and speed to convert on key 3rd downs.
Bobby Graustein, who was terrific against Gilford-Belmont with 2 sacks, a fumble recovery, and 7 tackles, leads a very good defense that includes Gavin Gagne at LB, Braden Santuccop at defensive tackle and Cole Salyards in multiple roles.
There are playmakers all over the field in Salyards, Kyle Perry, and Tanner Bennett. Evan Koroski gives them a battering ram on the goal line and Vaughn Beckwith and his staff always do a great job.
The separation between these four teams is minimal and going into Week 4 these are your favorites.
Teams we think are good: Bow, Lebanon, Hillsborough-Deering Hopkinton, and Gilford-Belmont
Bow has been one of the best football programs in the state for the past 10 years so I don’t have any questions about Paul Cohen’s program. The regionalized schedule has them playing Concord area teams so it’s tougher to get a gauge on this group.
My sense is they can compete with Kennett and Timberlane for a semifinal spot. They have several backs they can give the football to (Andrew Robbins is there between the tackles runner while Andrew Bliss & Nick Aubrey give them speed on the edges) and Alex Boisvert has proven he can get the ball to playmakers like Cooper Larabee & Matt Cardarelli.
They are also very well-coached, that’s a terrific coaching staff the Falcons have. We plan to see them again next weekend against Pembroke Academy.
Lebanon has a little more to prove, again not as a program, but with a new group of players.
Chris Child’s team can match up with just about anyone with their starting 11 but depth is always an issue. I’m always confused why great programs like Lebanon and Monadnock have any issues with numbers but year to year that always seems to be the case.
I came away impressed with Hillsborough-Deering Hopkinton in their opening game loss to Bow. That’s a tough place to open up at and add to it the fact that it was 75 degrees, I thought Jay Wood’s team hung in there and battled for four quarters.
Jack Morrall and Dylan Barrett give them a pair of playmakers for Jim O’Rourke’s offense and Chase Phaneuf’s defense was very physical against a Bow team that likes to pound the football.
Josh Marzahl’s Gilford-Belmont team is going to have to figure out their offense without all-state quarterback Alex Cheek, who was lost for the season after suffering a hip injury at Kingswood in Week 2.
Jack Mclean throws the ball very well and he has talented receivers in all-state WR Curtis Nelson and Liam Merriam but he isn’t the runner Cheek was and that makes them one dimensional when he drops back to pass.
Freshman WR Isaiah Reese has been thrust into the lineup earlier than Marzahl wanted but with their best runner out (Blake Descoteaux is also a very good back but Cheek was their best) he has no choice but to get him in the mix.
They lost to Kennett at the line as the Eagles defensive line led by Bobby Graustein got the better of them upfront.
They face Division III Winnisquam this weekend with a chance to get to 3-1 before the ultimate measuring stick game against Plymouth to close out the regular season.
We don’t really have any idea how good they are: Hanover and Pembroke Academy
Sam Cavallaro’s Marauders are undefeated at 3-0 and they feature two terrific running backs in Seamus Murphy and Ben Williams.
The reason they are in this category though is because they still haven’t played a school their size and I’m not sure we are going to learn much more when they face 0-3 John Stark this weekend.
Hanover has beaten Fall Mountain (Division IV), Stevens (Division III) ad Mascoma (Division IV). So there was little chance they were going to drop one of their first three games unless playoff Paul Silva pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
They’ll face arch-rival Lebanon next week in their truest test of the regular season.
Will Moher’s Pembroke Spartans, like Manchester Memorial in Division I, have been one of the great stories of the 2020 season.
They’re only in this category because we need to see how they compete in the next two weeks against Hillsborough-Deering Hopkinton and Bow.
Their three wins have come over John Stark, Division IV Bishop Brady, and Merrimack Valley, who have a combined record of 1-7.
Jack Schaefer is becoming a player people now know across the state and Logan Longacre, Devin Bourget, Ethan Harmony, and Aiden Weldon have all been really good defensively for the Spartans.
We’ll know where they stack up in two weeks.
Other key games this weekend:
Monadnock at Newport: We will be out at this one. The Tigers are the best team in Division III, possibly by a lot, but they get a great challenge on Saturday afternoon against a very good Huskies team.
Nashua North at Alvirne: It isn’t going to get any easier for the Broncos. This was a re-building year and a tough one to head back up to Division I. Nashua North looks championship-ready.
Spaulding at Exeter: Did the Blue Hawks clean up some of their execution issues in Manchester last weekend?
Dover at Portsmouth-Oyster River: No chance Eric Cumba lets his players look past this one. The Clippers aren’t going to go down quietly.
Fall Mountain at Stevens: According to the 2019 enrollment numbers (I haven’t seen the 2020 numbers yet) Stevens (a Division III team) had an enrollment of 548 students while Fall Mountain (a Division IV team ) had 506. I guess that tells you where the line is……….