It felt significant on the night of March 9th when Mascenic Regional and Gilford both advanced to a Division III championship game just four days away.
For Mascenic, this was a program that had struggled to breakthrough in the tournament and was coming off back-to-back first-round exits at home. The Vikings have been in the shadow of their arch-rival Conant, the defending champs and winners of 10 titles since 2001.
Now they had advanced to the championship game after a win over Somersworth, one of the ‘blue-blood’ programs in the division, and they had done it with a first-year head coach in Brandon Kear.
Gilford had been a perennial contender in the ’90s and 2000s, earning more than 10 final four appearances, a championship in 2004, and finishing as the runner-up in 1989, 1996, 1999, and 2007.
The Golden Eagles had struggled to break through since and heading into 2019 the player who would win Player of the Year in the division, Adrian Siravo, wasn’t even sure he wanted to play his senior year.
Both teams would rally around their new coaches, as Rick Acquilano had a similar effect that Kear would at Mascenic.
They were the clear-cut two best teams in the division and walking out to the parking lot of my alma mater Keene State College that night there was a split amongst people I spoke to on who was going to come out on top Friday night.
It never happened, as we know all too well. Players like Sammy Stauffeneker, Zach Barthel, Connor Sullivan, and Logan Hughes were in class around 10 am on the morning of the game when they were told it was being called off.
Imagine being a 17 or 18-year old kid and having to accept that?
Arguing over who would have won that game is as futile as arguing if Iron Man could beat up Captain America, and so the 2020 season closed without either program taking that final step.
There is a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2021 season and it begins with who the favorites are so let’s start by saying there is no clear-cut favorite in this division. Much like Mascenic (pre-season #5 last year) and Gilford (#6), there will be two teams that will emerge from a group of about ten.
Nate Camp and the Kearsarge Cougars return to the division with what would have been a Top 8 team in Division II. After years of Campbell, Somersworth, Berlin, and Conant dominating the division it’s a new group that has vaulted to the top, including three contenders from the Lakes Region.
What it sets us up for is a very fun race that likely is highlighted by a quarterfinal round where anything can happen. Division III in 2021 is going to be fairly wide open, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a double-digit seed in the final four.
Today in our fourth of eight pre-season previews we take a look at the contenders for the title and the candidates to crash the party.
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Division III Pre-Season Top 10
Lurking outside the Top 10: Somersworth, St. Thomas, White Mountains, Inter-Lakes and Mascenic Regional.
Just two years removed from advancing to the Division II championship game the Kearsarge Cougars return to Division III under head coach Nate Camp.
In a division that looks wide open as play begins in January Camp doesn’t need to be reminded how little difference there is between the best teams in the two divisions. “We had success in Division III but we also had a lot of great battles that we didn’t come out on top of,” said Camp. “The kids are excited about the challenge. We know there are a lot of great programs in the division and our goal is to hold our own.”
Two starters return from a 9-9 team a year ago but those numbers are deceiving. Ten players return for a Kearsarge team capable of another run in March. “The group we have now were all 7th and 8th graders when Tayler Mattos & Tommy Johnson were winning a championship for us,” said Camp. “So they want to create something they can call their own.”
Point guard Sam Carl takes over the offense after the graduation of his brother Ben last year. “Sam battled his brother in practice every day so he’s battle-tested. He’s certainly ready for this.”
Carl gives the Cougars a floor general who can handle pressure and run the offense. He will be joined in the backcourt by shooting guard Chris Stanchfield who came on strong at the end of last season. “Chris is a very good athlete and he’s gotten stronger,” said Camp. “He can shoot it but he’s also turned into a slasher who can get to the rim as well.”
Forward Adrian McCarthy was still battling the effects of an injury suffered in the 2018 championship game against Pembroke for most of last season. Now back to 100% McCarthy should be poised for a breakout season. “He will really help us on the boards and in a lot of different ways. He’s been a very good team player for us.”
The Cougars will have size up front with Connor Pillsbury and George Jallah both ready to step in and contribute. “Connor has really improved and a George is someone who is going to help us this year. We have confidence in both of them.”
Nolan Grant and Tim Flanders both played a year ago and will be in the rotation. Grant is a combo guard who might be one of the team’s defenders while Flanders is a shooter on the perimeter.
All of which gives Kearsarge the experience, depth, and coaching to be a major factor come March. “This group is one of the harder working groups I’ve had here at Kearsarge,” said Camp. “There is a really good vibe during workouts and the chemistry has been very good. We’re excited to get going.”
When you talk to Division III coaches (and I spoke to nineteen) a name you hear brought up time & again is the Monadnock Huskies. Jim Hill’s squad was a final four team in 2018 and with one of the best backcourts in the division and size down low, it’s time for another run in Swanzey.
“ This is a just a very coach-able group. When you’ve been in coaching long enough you learn you’ll have teams you have to motivate and team’s that come ready to compete every day,” said Hill. “This is a group that just loves to compete.”
It begins with all-state guard Jake Kidney, a member of the NHsportspage underclassman team a year ago, who has morphed from a player capable of big things into one about to accomplish them. “He leads vocally but also by example,” said Hill. “He wins every sprint in practice. That pretty much says it all.”
Kidney gives the Huskies scoring on the wing and a player with the strength to finish at the rim. He will be joined in the backcourt by Tyler Hebert and Kevin Putnam, both ready for their breakout season.
The three seniors have been a part of three playoff wins and now it is about taking the next steps in their final season together. “Kevin pushes everyone in practice and I expect him to have a very good season.”
Tyler Hebert will run the offense at the point, allowing Kidney to play off the ball, and is a smart and tenacious player. “The other players feed off of his energy and he has a good connection on the floor with his teammates. He knows how to run the offense.”
Rebounding was the Huskies Achilles heel a year ago but with forward Nate Doyle back and three underclassmen ready to compete for minutes Hill likes where the group is headed.
Doyle, who was the quarterback on the football team, plays bigger than his 6’2 height and has been working closely with 6’3 junior Carson Shanks, 6’3 Nate Johnson, and 6’2 Gabe Hill. “That’s a group we need to have come together for us,” said Hill. “We feel like there are players who are going to step into bigger roles and Jake is one of the better rebounding guards in the division. We have to rebound as a team and we have a group who can collectively get it done.”
Guard Andy Colbert has played well in the pre-season and will step into a big role this season along with Anthony Poanessa.
Sophomore Malik Torres has all the potential in the world, an athletic scorer off the bench who has shown flashes in the past. If Torres can step in as a scorer in the rotation the Huskies won’t have any issues winning a shootout. “He’s an exciting player for us, we want to see it consistently because I believe he can help us,” said Hill.
“This looks and feels like a division with a lot of good teams at the top. We just want to be one of those teams and playing our best basketball when the tournament starts in March.”
Kevin Dame’s teams at Winnisquam like to get up & down the floor in a hurry…and of all of his team teams he has coached this might be the team best equipped to do it. “We have the talent & the speed to play at a very fast pace,” said Dame. “The chemistry with this group is very good. After making the quarterfinals a year ago they want to go to the next level.”
It starts with all-state forward Phil Nichols, who finished 6th in the division in scoring a year ago. The 6’2 Nichols can beat you from behind the 3-point line or by getting to the rim off the dribble. “Phil is Phil, he’s been so solid and reliable his entire career it’s hard to come up with new things to add,” jokes Dame. “He has a lot of quickness but he is also very physical. He does a lot for us on both ends of the floor.”
A year ago point guard Garrett Mango was lost to a football injury suffered in a championship game win over Fall Mountain, in a game I not only covered but nearly froze to death at. That forced Dame to turn to sophomore Anthony Robbins a year early.
One year later Mango is back and ready to play while Robbins is now an experienced starting point guard. “I love the competition we have every day at the guard spot,” said Dame. “Anthony sort of got thrown out there but he played very well for us and looks better here in the pre-season.”
Mango can both handle the ball and defend at a high level. He will be joined in a crowded backcourt by Jacob Seavey, who may be primed for a breakout season.
“Jacob has really come on, there are practices where he is our best player,” said Dame. “Last year we put him on guards like Jake Kidney and Jackson Roulke and he did very well against some high-caliber players.”
In the frontcourt junior forward Caleb Bushway returns after starting as a sophomore. The forward, who I nicknamed ‘Hurricane Bushway’ after only about one half of watching him, is all effort and energy for the Bears. “He looks unorthodox at times but he works extremely hard at his game,” said Dame. “He can make difficult shots so I’ve stopped questioning him on the ones he takes.”
The Bears, like Monadnock, need to be better on the boards if they are going to be the last team standing in March. A bigger Hopkinton squad was too much for the Bears to handle in the quarterfinals a year ago but Dame feels like as a team Winnisquam will be up to the task.
“We have very good athletes if not a lot of size,” said Dame. “We will rebound as a team and I think there are a few new players who can step in and help us.”
Anthony Boomer is a player to watch (“He’s been working very hard in the pre-season.”) along with Cooper French, who was a key contributor a year ago.
Ben Rollins will compete for minutes along with talented freshman Alex Nichols, Phil’s younger brother. “He has a chance to make a difference for us right away,” said Dame.
What that leaves you with is a team that can score with any team in the division and one that will work hard to control the pace of every game they play in. “It’s a great group and they are working hard. I just like this team a lot and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish.”
As far as first season’s as a head coach go…..it’s going to be hard to find a better one than the one Rick Acquilano had at Gilford.
The Golden Eagles lived up to their potential and then some. Adrian Siravo won the player of the year award (I still owe his dad a steak) and Gilford lost only one game on route to a co-championship shared with Mascenic after the season ended abruptly.
Siravo is off throwing 94 mph in Texas and fellow starters Logan Hughes & Connor Sullivan have graduated as well. What Gilford has in 2021 is a team not only capable of another run but a group that looks poised for a prolonged one in Division III. “I’m very lucky with this group,” said Acquilano.
“We have a great group of kids with some great parents guiding them. They come in with great attitudes ready to work. We have a long ways to go but it’s a team that wants to get better and understands how hard you need to play every night to be there in the end.”
6’4 Sophomore Jalen Reese will run the offense from the point guard spot, allowing 6’1 shooting guard Riley Marsh to play off the ball. “Jalen’s strength is as a distributor so we are going to put the ball in his hands,” said Acquilano. “My job is to get the most out of Jalen, there is a lot of potential. He has the chance to be special.”
Marsh stepped into a bigger role a year ago as a sophomore and now gives Gilford a perimeter threat who can handle the ball against pressure. “He’s made a jump in ability from sophomore to junior year and he’s going to play a lot of minutes for us.”
The frontcourt is crowded and it is big. Gilford will again feature lineups with multiple players over 6’4.
Malik Reese returns at the center spot and Acquilano has been impressed by how vocal the senior has been. “He’s been terrific in communicating on the court, getting guys into the right position,” said Acquilano. “He’s a great teammate and has become a leader on this team.”
6’4 Sam Cheek will push Reese for minutes down low while Acquilano is excited about the return of 6’3 Alex Cheek, who injured his hip during an all-state football season.
“Alex is in the gym with us every day and his recovery has gone so well because of what great physical condition he is in,” Acquilano. “We need him cleared 100% to be back, hopefully sometime in January, because he is going to play right away. We need him.”
Curtis Nelson was a key reserve for Gilford a year ago and could play starters minutes this season as a senior. “We want him out on the floor and he’s working very hard to earn that. He played very well at times a year ago. At times I want him to slow down and at others I want him to speed up,” joked Acquilano. “But no doubt, he loves to compete.”
The player Nelson is butting heads with in practice most days is uber-talented freshman Isaiah Reese, who averaged nearly 30 points a game in middle school a year ago. “He’s legit,” said his head coach. “He’s going to play a lot of minutes for us and I love the attitude he brings every day. He wants to be in there and make an immediate impact. I think he will.”
Jack McLean, the quarterback on the football team, has played well in the pre-season while Austin Normandin is competing for minutes as well for a Gilford team capable of again being there in the end.
Gilford will play up to 8 games against Division II teams (Laconia, Kennett, Kingswood, and Plymouth). Add to that the fact that the Lakes Region is one of the strongest regions in the division and there will be little mystery where they stack up in the division come playoff time.
“We won a lot of very close games a year ago and Connor, Adrian, and Logan (who had two game-winners) were a big part of that late-game success,” said Acquilano. “Who are we getting that from this year? That’s what we need to find out. This is a group that needs to be tested and with our schedule, we certainly will.”
Jim Cilley’s 7th season at his alma mater feels a little different from the other six.
Since returning to Belmont as their head coach the Red Raiders have become one of the most consistent programs in Division III but what they lack is a signature season.
A signature season almost always includes a Final Four run (see Gilford & Mascenic last season and Monadnock in 2018 for recent examples) and Belmont hasn’t gotten there…yet. “We have an experienced group and they’ve been able to win a lot of games together but they also realize they haven’t accomplished their goal yet,” said Cilley. “This is the season we have been sort of pointing to and it’s about making the most of it.”
There may be Division III backcourts comparable to Belmont’s Jackson Ruelke and Nate Sottak but there won’t be a better one.
Ruelke at 6’4 gives the Red Raiders a player who can get to the paint anytime he wants and can be used to expose one on one match-up’s in the low-post with smaller guards. “I feel strongly that he’s as good as any guard in our division,” said Cilley. “With Jackson, it’s about cutting back on the turnovers and improving his assists to turnover ratio. He’s been a vocal leader and he’s playing really well for us.”
Belmont was 8-2 and headed into the toughest part of their schedule last season when combo guard Nate Sottak, the team’s best defender, broke his wrist in a game against Winnisquam that we covered.
Belmont never recovered, going 1-7 down the stretch before a last-minute loss to Winnisquam in the first round of the tournament. Sottak is back and healthy again, and his coach sees a better and more complete player.
“Nate’s leadership has been off the charts and his shooting has really improved,” said Cilley. “His on the ball defense has always been his strength but now he’s taking the ball to the basket and knocking down shots. He and Jackson work very well together.”
For Belmont to take the next step they’ll need 6’2 sophomore Jamison Gaudette to emerge as the team’s 3rd scorer. “He showed flashes a year ago as a freshman, “ said Cilley. “ Now we just need to see it on a more consistent basis. His energy has been really good and I have a lot of confidence in the player he can become.”
Isaiah Costa is another very athletic forward/guard who will step in and contribute right away. “He might be our second-best defender and when he is dialed in, that makes us a tough team to get up the floor against.”
Brian Carroll returns as the glue-guy every team needs to win. “Brian does whatever is asked of him and he helps us in a lot of ways.” Meanwhile, Bryce Hall, Jason Gaudette, and 6’4 Sam Reposa will all have a chance to be in Cilley’s 8 to a 9-man rotation.
“There are no excuses. This is a make or break season for this group,” said Cilley. “We need to rebound and defend at a high level because I’m confident that with our backcourt we’re going to score points. The Lakes Region might be the toughest in the division this year with not only Gilford and Winnisquam but Laconia as well. We are going to need to bring it every night and we’re looking forward to that.”
Silas Ayres and Mascoma took a big step forward a year ago with a last-second playoff win over Monadnock. The Royals erased an 18 point deficit and won on an out of bounds play in the final seconds.
That win gave them an understanding of what it takes to win in the post-season. Now it’s about taking the next step in 2021.
“That win was huge for us, not only for when it occurred but how we fought back to win,” said head coach Silas Ayres. “A year ago we beat the teams we were supposed to but also struggled against the best teams in the division and those 50/50 type games. We need to use the experience we have to win those now.”
Scoring won’t be an issue as Ben Seiler returns as a junior after leading the division in scoring last year at 22.9 points per game. “He’s matured a lot, both physically and as a leader,” said Ayres. “He’s improved his game and he’s going to have a big season for us.”
“Last year it was only Ben that we could rely on as a scorer night to night. I don’t think that will be the case this season.”
Senior Connor Thompson and forward Gabe Rock return to the starting lineup and they should give the Royals three double-digit scorers. “Connor has come in more engaged and focused. He’s a senior and he knows this is his last go-around,” said Ayres.
Seiler, Thompson, and Rock are all under 6’2, meaning Mascoma’s issues rebounding the basketball remain in place. “Rebounding killed us last season,” said Ayres. “ We still don’t have the size so we are going to have to create our second chance opportunities with our pressure defense. We want to create havoc with our speed.”
Isaac Rayno gives Mascoma the type of glue-guy player you win with while sophomore Zach Thompson will step in and play right away at point guard. “Zach has really come on for us,” said Ayres. “He loves the game and I see him as ready to take on the point guard role for us.”
Michael Loins might be the team’s best shooter and will be able to space the floor on a team without a post presence. “ We are going to space the floor and attack the basket,” said Ayers.
Cousins Cole and Ian Moulton will vie for a spot in the rotation as the Royals look to make a final four run in March. “ We have to take it to the next level where we can beat the team’s contending for the title,” said Ayres. “ It’s going to take some time to come together, and the limited practice time has set us back, but I’m confident in this team coming together.”
Gold Level Coaches/Programs as of 1/5:
Mike Rathgeber of Inter-Lakes
Nate Camp of Kearsarge
Jim Cilley of Belmont
Jaryd Piecuch of Raymond
Eric Saucier of Conant
Rick Acquilano of Gilford
Jim Hill of Monadnock
Sean Murphy of St. Thomas
Justin Dibenedetto of Campbell
Kiernan Gordon of Prospect Mountain
It was a big turnaround for the Raymond Rams in their first season under head coach Jaryd Piecuch. The Rams were in the conversation again in Division III and gave Hopkinton all they could handle in the first round of the tournament.
That culture change has led to a team capable of taking the next step in 2021. “Last year we went from hoping to compete to expecting to win, that’s the mindset we want to keep,” said Piecuch.
Twins Josh and Nate Krafton return after combining for 26 points a game a year ago. “Josh has worked to become a very polished player and his motor is off the charts,” says his head coach. “He has that old school game that makes him a very effective scorer.”
“Nate is very explosive with the ball and has shown an ability to not only shoot it but get to the rim off the dribble.”
They will be joined in the starting lineup by forward Gavin Santino. “Gavin played some good minutes for us a year ago but wasn’t ready to step in as a starter,” said Piecuch. “He is now and has worked to get there.”
Nate McGrath is an athletic guard who can defend on the perimeter while Paul Goding will handle the ball for the Rams. “We want to push the pace and apply pressure and we think we have a lineup suited for that,” said Piecuch.
Kaden Brackett and Cohen Claytor will both get the chance to contribute right away. “Kaden is an all-state soccer player who didn’t play last season for us. He has a lot to learn obviously but he’s a very good athlete and someone I think can help us as a defender,” said Piecuch. “You can never have too many athletes.”
“Expectations are higher this season and that’s where we want them,” said Piecuch. “This is a division with a lot of very good teams this year. We are excited to compete.”
Hopkinton head coach Steve Signor helped lead the Hawks to the final four a year ago but has to replace the all-state duo of Kevin Newton-Delgado and Shepyrd Murdough. With Hopkinton there always seems to be players waiting for their turn in the spotlight, and 2021 doesn’t look any different.
“I think we are going to surprise some teams as I have a very solid starting group who all have varsity experience,” said Signor. “Our key will be to keep them healthy and continue to develop our bench as none of them have any varsity experience.”
Owen Milchick is the team’s lone returning starter but this was a Hopkinton team that often played 10 players. “He continued to improve all last year and has come into the season in shape. He has developed his rim attacking game which complements his outside shooting,” said Signor.
On the low block it begins with former 6’5 center Brendan Elrick who is now current 6’8 center Brendan Elrick after growing three inches over the off-season. Elrick gives the Hawks a rim protector of the highest order and a rebounder to replace the production of Newton-Delgado.
Signor said he expects Quinn Whitehead to be a double-digit scorer while John Jacobson may be one of the team’s most improved players. “He has grown a little and provided some muscle this year,” said Signor. “He has increased his shooting range while also being able to attack the rim. I expect big things from John this year with rebounding, scoring and his defensive play.”
Mike Oberheim, who was the quarterback on the football team, has worked hard over the off-season will play alongside Whitehead in the backcourt and gives the Hawks a shooter to spread out the defense.
Depth is rarely an issue for Hopkinton but with the limited practice time Signor is still sorting out his rotation. “They all have been working hard and surprising me everyday so I am excited to see how our games go.”
A year ago the defending Division III champion Conant Orioles struggled to score but defended well enough to get back to the quarterfinals before losing Somersworth.
With all-state forward Anthony Gauthier graduated Eric Saucier’s team may still struggle score, but so will the teams they’ll be playing. “This is a mostly new group and a lot of underclassmen are going to be in the mix,” said Saucier, owner of five championships as a head coach. “There are no expectations; we are just focused on working hard and getting better every day. The kids have been great so far.”
Hayden Ketola, Colson Seppala, and big man Garrett Somero were all key contributors a year ago. “Hayden & Colson played specific roles a year ago, now we want them to be more aggressive offensively,” said Saucier. “Garrett showed flashes last season and I’m excited to see him play a much bigger role for us in the low-post this season.”
Jacson Cross, Malique Motzusas, and Jake Trombley will all compete for a spot in the Orioles' eight to nine-man rotation.
“We lost a lot of scoring when we lot Anthony and Connor (Hart),” said Saucier. “Those were two all-state players who won a championship here, but now this group has a chance to look for their shot more and play Conant basketball. We want to move the basketball, player with a ton of effort and get after you defensively.”
A pair of freshmen, one with a very familiar name, will get their chance to play right away. Jordan Naegle and Manny Hodgson, youngest brother of Ezra, Eli, Steven, and Simoen will both compete for minutes.
“We have very low numbers this year so there has been a lot of 4 on 4 in practice,” said Saucier. “The effort level has been great though and I’m having a lot of fun working with this team.”
The Campbell Cougars are perennially in the mix in Division III and that shouldn’t change in 2021.
Only two rotation players return from a year ago but former player and now head coach Justin Dibenedetto has a very good young nucleus and a schedule that will have his team battle-tested by March.
“It’s an inexperienced group but a really good group,” said Dibenedetto, who at 24 is the youngest coach in the division. “We have seniors who will be leaders and some underclassman players I’m really excited about. They are going to get a chance to step in and play right away.”
Will McPheron and Brody Mills return to the Campbell lineup and each will play a major role. “Will is a real leader for us and someone who I can see having a big season,” said Dibenedetto. “Brody will play point guard and run the offense. He’s played very well for us in the pre-season.”
All-state guard Brendan Rice has graduated but younger brother Dylan will step into a much bigger role this season. “Dylan is a very good shooter, he has good instincts and good size for the guard position,” said Dibenedetto.
Sophomore Colton Martel is a name you’re going to be hearing a lot of in the next few years. The younger brother of all-state football player Chad is a 6’2 guard with all the necessary skills to make an immediate impact. “He is someone I’m excited to work with and see develop his game,” said Dibenedetto. “He is going to start for us and contribute immediately.”
Jack Noury fills the always valuable Glue-Guy role while John Newell and Drew Adamakos should provide defense and rebounding off the bench. Freshman Austin McHugh and sophomore Jackson Kanalay will battle for a spot in the rotation as well.
“As a group, there is a lot of skill already, what we need to develop is toughness. We are going to be playing a mostly Division II schedule and I’m happy about that. As a young group it’s only going to force us to come together quicker,” said Dibenedetto.
All of which sets Campbell up as a team that could surprise a few higher-ranked teams come March. “I’m excited,” said Dibenedetto. “I have what I consider unfinished business at my alma mater after playing in three final fours but never winning. For the last eight years or so we have had coaches here for a couple of years who have then moved on. I want to be here for a long time. Coaching at the school I went to is a dream job so I’m excited to see what we can become as a program.”
Leon Shaw takes over at Somersworth for Rob Fauci, who led the team to four final fours in five seasons and the 2018 Division III championship as the Hilltoppers head coach.
Shaw has a young team looking to form its own identity. “These are underclassmen who understand the history of success here but want to make their own success story,” said Shaw. “One of our mottos for this season is ‘respect’. As in, we want to earn that as a new group around the division.”
Three players who started at times a year ago (Rob Fauci guesses he had about 10 different lineups due to illness & injuries) return as sophomore Aiden Hefferon, Jeremy Levesque, and Mark Kelly will all assume bigger roles.
“We don’t have a one on one scorer like Jacob Hamilton or a rebounder like Ethan Johnson or Luke Monesmith but what we do have is depth. We have ten players who I could see starting for us this season.”
Hefferon showed flashes a year ago as a starter and could be the next all-state guard for the Hilltoppers. “Aiden is set to have a good year for us but he is also now going to become the focus of the defense. A year ago those defenses focused on players like Hamilton.”
Levesque has proven he can score and now it will be about bringing that production consistently. Mark Kelly will step in and contribute right away at shooting guard and will play alongside 6’1 Jeff DeKorne.
“We have a really good group of athletes,” said Shaw. “It’s about coming together as a group. What type of season we have will come down to whether the kids buy into putting the work in. If they are complacent and just expect us to win games because we’re Somersworth, it’s going to come back to bite us.”
6’2 Ethan Turgeon will play in the low post after backing up Johnson a year ago. “He’s worked hard and understands he has some big shoes to fill.”
Nick Siagian has a chance to make an impact along with 6’2 junior forward Givon Arscott.
“Practices have been very competitive because everyone is competing for minutes,” said Shaw. “That’s the benefit of having a new team.”
“The kids understand what they have to do and I think we have a chance to be a very good basketball team by the time we get to the post-season.”
Inter-Lakes head coach Mike Rathgeber helped lead a team that started one freshman and two sophomores to playoffs a year ago and now his team’s sights set on doing some damage in the 2022 Division III Tournament.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“We huddled as a group and decided we are treating this season as one long pre-season,” said Rathgeber. “It’s about continuing to get better week by week and being ready for 2022.”
Ok, before I hang my friend out to dry let’s explain the logic because it actually makes a ton of sense.
Inter-Lakes has been among the strictest schools when it has come to allowing their teams to play this year. The Inter-Lakes volleyball was a top seed in the playoffs but was not allowed to travel by the school board, forfeiting their playoff appearance.
Both basketball programs are again being told they won’t be allowed to travel for the playoffs, even inside their region.
Sophomore Luke Brown led the team in scoring a year ago and returns as most sophomores do; a little older, a little wiser, and even a little taller. “He will be our go-to guy this season and I think you’ll see opposing defenses focusing a lot of attention on him,” said Rathgeber. “He has a very high basketball IQ and he continues to improve as a player.”
Van Buhman, who came on strong at the end of the last season, moved on to New Hampton prep. to play lacrosse. His role will likely be filled by a group that includes Jack Gintof (“He has worked on his game,” said Rathegeber. “He just needs to be more consistent.”), senior Jason Keyzer and 8th grader Owen Brown, Luke’s younger brother.
“We lost quite a few players so we had to pull Owen up from the 8th-grade team,” said Rathgeber. “The fun part for Owen is he is going to get a chance to contribute right away.”
All of which again puts the Lakers amongst the youngest teams in the division. “It’s a really great group of kids to work with. We are focused on building on the experience of last season and being a team that competes for final fours when our underclassman becomes upper-classman.”
The St Thomas Saints were hit hard by graduation losses but a good JV team from a year ago now gets their shot for Sean Murphy’s program. “It’s almost an entirely new group so we are defining roles and seeing day to day what we have,” said Murphy.
Shooting guard Mike Cavanaugh and forward Jake McNeff return to the starting lineup along with reserve Vinnie Somenelli. “Mike has been good in working with the younger guys,” said Murphy. “We will play at a faster pace than we did a year ago. Right now it’s about determining who is going to be in the rotation.”
Forward Ethan Berg has a chance for a breakout year at forward (“He’s played very well in the pre-season.”) while freshman Jackson Jones will have the opportunity to play right away. “We have some talented underclassman and there should be carry over from a good JV season a year ago.”
Tyler Leedberg gives the Saints a legitimate bruiser in the low post while guard Noah Guglielmo has a chance to make an immediate impact. “We still have a lot to learn about ourselves but the kids are just happy to have the opportunity to play,” said Murphy.
After running into playoff frustration on an almost yearly basis the Mascenic Vikings got over the hump in big way. Advancing all the way to the Division III championship and earning the right to be called the divisions co-champion.
Four key seniors from that team have graduated, leaving second-year head coach Brandon Kear with a lot of holes to fill. “We have some good underclassmen that sat and watched last season as we made our run,” said Kear. “Now they get their opportunity and I’m excited to see what we can become.”
Forwards Gabe Turner, a key contributor a year ago, and Shea Zina return for the Vikings. “They are both smart players who understand what we are trying to do. They aren’t necessarily very vocal but they have done a good job leading by example,” said Kear.
There is plenty of competition at the guard spot after the loss of first-team all-state guard Sammy Stauffeneker, and fellow all-state guards Trey Shaw and Dylan Vaillancourt. “We have a good group and they understand every practice is about earning minutes.”
Jackson & Joe Copezzela, Adam Stauffeneker (you didn’t really think they wouldn’t have another one did you?), Dylan Barthel (younger brother of all-state forward Zach), and Kruk will all compete for time in the Vikings backcourt.
“We have a good group of sophomores, they just need to get some experience,” said Kear.
While the chances Kear’s career unbeaten streak as a coach will continue are pretty slim the future at Mascenic once again looks bright. “It’s been a fun group to coach and they are just really excited to have the opportunity to play,” said Kear.
“I came from Conant as a player so there is no secret to how I want us to play; tough defensively, move the ball, and outwork our opponents. We had a lot of very good players sacrifice their stats for us to win a year ago and that’s what we want to build with this group.”
Here's a little Division III trivia question for you:
Who are the only three programs to advance to quarterfinals in each of the last three seasons?
You wouldn’t be surprised to learn Hopkinton and Somersworth are two of those teams but you might be surprised by the third…..it’s White Mountains.
Mike Curtis’ Spartans have been one of the best programs in the division and each team they lost to went to the finals (Campbell, Conant, and Gilford).
With all-state guard, Jack Curtis graduated the Spartans will rely on two returning starters and the emergence of their 6’9 big man. “It’s been different this year,” said Curtis. “I find myself doing a lot more teaching, which I really enjoy.”
“We had a core group that had a nice run and now it’s about developing a group of underclassmen that want to step up into bigger roles.”
Brody LaBounty was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago (10.1 ppg) and will be the focus of the offense along with 6’2 forward Tyler Hicks. “Tyler is just a very mature and physical player,” said Curtis. “He can have a big impact for us this season.”
“Brody is a very good shooter on the wing and he & Tyler are helping the younger guys come along.”
6’9 Avery Hazelton will start at center for the Spartans. Hazelton is skilled and a very nice kid…which might be a problem. “I want him to be more aggressive, to use his size to dominate down low,” said Curtis. “That’s the mentality we want him to have out on the floor. He has the skills he just needs the attitude to go with it.”
Brayden White and Parker Valdez are a pair of senior athletes who have played baseball & soccer for the Spartans and know how to win. Avery Woodburn should step in and play right away along with big man Forest Pribbernow, younger brother of former all-state center Zeke.
A pair of freshmen; Trevor Armstrong & Robert Breault will have a chance to contribute right away as well. “We are trying to figure out everyone’s roles but it’s a very coachable team. They want to get better and follow up on the success the graduating classes before them have been able to have,” said Curtis.
Last season was expected to be a rebuilding year at Berlin, a program that has established itself as one of the best in the division over the last decade. That slide took the Mountaineers all the back to 2-16 last season.
3rd-year head coach Jared Lauze likes the make-up of his 2021 team, he just needs a point guard to emerge from the pack. “We are really forward heavy,” said Lauze. “I’m excited about this group and what we can become; we just need to find a point guard.”
That role will likely be filled by several players, as the best point guard in the gym every day will be their new JV coach and former 1st team all-state guard Evan Arsenault.
The Berlin frontcourt is less of a mystery as Lauze has a group that could do damage in the paint.
Jeremyah Dow is 6’2 and built like an offensive lineman. He gives Berlin someone to bang down low and finish at the rim. “He’s been playing well for us and his strength & ability gives us a lot to work with in the low-post.”
Berlin’s leading scorer Jalen Lacasse graduated last spring, taking 17 points a game with him. Lauze feels like his team will have a more balanced offense this season with small forward Jacob Mercier and guard Shaun Goyette both stepping into bigger roles.
“Jacob can knock down shots on the perimeter for us and Shaun is very quick. He’s someone who can get to the rim off the dribble and play good defense for us.”
A player to watch is 6’4 freshman Haden Poulin. Lauze said Poulin will play right away and he’s excited about what he brings to the rotation. “He’s really skilled and has worked hard in our limited pre-season,” said Lauze. “He was pretty dominant at the middle school level so we are excited to add him to the mix.”
Lauze feels like the rebuild is on schedule and if Berlin can handle the ball well they’ll have balanced scoring from their rotation players. “We have had good ball movement and energy in our practices. The kids are excited to have the chance to play and I think it will be good for us this season to play a lot of our North Country rivals again.”
In the early 2010s, Prospect Mountain was among the best basketball programs in Division III, highlighted by championship game appearances in 2009 (a loss to Conant) and 2012 (a loss to Berlin).
The Timberwolves have struggled recently, winning only 8 games over the last three seasons, but a good junior class, a pair of talented freshmen, and an experienced new head coach has the program pointed in the right direction again.
“I’m excited to be coaching again and the kids are excited to have the opportunity to compete,” said head coach Kiernan Gordon. “This is a very coachable group and the energy has been great so far.”
A pair of juniors leads a class ready to get Prospect Mountain back in the conversation.
Deuce Smith and Ethan Howe will both contribute right away in Gordon’s first season. “Deuce is very skilled and has been playing very well for us,” said Gordon. “Ethan gives us a shooter on the wing.”
Prospect Mountain has senior leadership as Alex Ludwig, Michael Perry, and Fawcett have set the tone for a team filled with underclassmen. “They set a tone for us in practice,” said Gordon. “We are going to encounter adversity this season and so the leadership from our seniors is going to be very important.”
A big part of the optimism surrounding the program comes from a talented pair of freshmen who will both play right away. Point guard Ethan Kopsais, whose sisters are key players for the girls' program, will be handed the keys to the offense while 6’4 forward Dillon name will also step right into the rotation. “They have both come in ready to compete and have brought a lot of energy.”
Gordon has coached at both the Division II and III college levels all over the country including stops in New York, California, North Carolina, and Ohio. He comes on board as about as overqualified a coach as you’re going to find applying for high school jobs.
What he wants to see is his team playing its best basketball when the open tournament rolls around in March. “We want to focus on getting better every week and I know that is coach-speak but for us it’s true. We haven’t had success as a group yet and there are going to be underclassmen taking on important roles,” said Gordon.
“We are (in the Lakes Region) around some of the best teams in our division this year and we need to be able to compete against the Belmont’s, the Winnisquams, and Gilford. We want to get to the point where we can earn a marquee win and have our program talked about throughout the division again.”
The two-year re-alignment meeting may mean nothing to Division III lifers but boy are they paid keen attention to in Claremont.
Stevens is back in Division III after a two-year stay in Division II.
Ray Curran’s Cardinals rejoin the division they were the runner-up in four years ago with an athletic team that will have to use their speed to negate their lack of size.
“We are a small team so pressuring the ball and building an identity as a good defensive team is going to be key for us,” said Curran. “We have a group that understands what it takes to compete and we’re glad to be back in Division III with our rivals.”
Clayton Wadsworth, last seen bursting up the sidelines against Pelham in the Division IV football championship, returns as the teams’ leading scorer. Wadsworth can knock down shots from the perimeter but his head coach wants to see his shooting guard getting to the rim. “Clayton can beat players off the dribble,” said Curran. “We struggle as a team to shoot it from the perimeter so we want to create scoring opportunities in the paint.”
Owen Taylor is an undersized center at 6’1 but has the athletic ability to battle with bigger opponents. “We feel like Owen and Brady Moote are going to be able to use their strength on the low block. Rebounding as a team will be a key.”
“Brady is a player who will play good defense for us and rebound as well. He helps us in a few different ways.”
A good sophomore class gives the program a lot of hope as at least six players from that class will play varsity this season. Point guard Hunter LaRocque, Trystan Lane (“He’s had a very good pre-season for us”, said Curran), and Kayden LaClair all are expected to step in and contribute right away.
“We have to be a better offensively,” said Curran of his team that averaged just 35 points per game last season. “We feel like we have a good group and a talented group of underclassmen who can contribute. The kids have had a really good attitude about getting better and week to week that’s what we’re going to work to accomplish.”
Pre-Season First Team All-State
Jake Kidney of Monadnock
Phil Nichols of Winnisquam
Jackson Ruelke of Belmont
Ben Seiler of Mascoma
Chris Stanchfield of Kearsarge
Second Team All-State
Jalen Reese of Gilford
Nate Sottak of Belmont
Nate Krafton of Raymond
Josh Krafton of Raymond
Sam Carl of Kearsarge
Players to watch: Colson Seppala of Conant, Connor Thompson of Mascoma, Will McPherson of Campbell, Kevin Putnam & Tyler Hebert of Monadnock, Tyler Hicks of White Mountains, Luke Brown of Inter-Lakes, Aiden Hefferon of Somersworth and Brendan Elrick of Hopkinton
Coming Monday: Division II