The 2020 football season was about survival, not literally but certainly figuratively.
Coaches talked more about getting through each week than preparing for their opponent. Conversations about running back rotations or linebacking units were replaced with talk of washing footballs and putting water bottles six feet apart.
For every coach, every player, and team, 2020 was about getting to the finish line and sadly many teams didn’t.
Exeter, Pinkerton, Lebanon, and St. Thomas were among the teams who had their season cut short, but in the end, we crowned four champions, and each was worthy of the honor.
We’re not entirely back to normal, and who knows when we ever will be, but we know there will be a season, and we know teams’ seasons will end on the field and not over email.
“We as coaches appreciate this more than we probably did in the past,” said Merrimack head coach Kip Jackson. “You don’t take any practice for granted anymore.”
It was a sentiment echoed by all eighteen Division I coaches I spoke to.
“We do this for the kids,” said Windham head coach Jack Byrne. “The attitudes of these kids and the smile on their faces tell the whole story. There is a sense of normalcy again, and that is so important for these kids.”
Jeff Collins and the NHIAA deserve a ton of credit for getting us through the 2020-21 sports season, as does Governor Chris Sununu. While neighboring states sat out the season, we were able to compete.
The 2021 season is all about what happens on the field and will have little to do with circumstances off of it.
Division I features six or seven teams good enough to be the last team standing (the championship game will not be held at UNH this season but on a neutral turf field) come November.
In our first of four previews this week, we take an 8,000-word deep-dive look at Division I, where twenty teams begin the season looking to climb the same mountain Nashua North did a year ago.
Our preview today is brought to you by our friends & Nashua area regional partners at Nashua Community College.
Click on their video above, the link below or any of their banner ads on our homepage or sponsored team pages for more information about how you can earn a 2-year degree or credits towards a 4-year degree!
Brackets will be East/North and West/South
East Conference Predicted Order
Bill Ball coached football teams annually get better by the week, and last season that was again the case after the Exeter Blue Hawks avenged a loss to Dover earlier in the season with a 14-0 playoff victory.
Covid issues unfortunately ended their season before they had the chance to take the field against arch-rival Winnacunnet, leaving unfinished business amongst a group of seacoast teams that might make up; the best conference in the state this season.
Expect Exeter, Dover, and Winnacunnet to pick up right where they left off, and don't be surprised if Portsmouth-Oyster is your sleeper team as Spaulding continues to re-build with underclassmen.
"It's wide open this year, in Division I as well as here amongst the seacoast teams," said Hall of Fame head coach Bill Ball. "The line between winning and losing these games is so thin that it comes down to executing with the game on the line and sometimes even a little bit of luck."
Exeter is a program built on their senior classes. Over a hundred players stand on the sideline waiting for their turn, and many, very good players, don't get that opportunity until they are seniors.
The Blue Hawks will feature experience, depth, and enough talent to be the last team standing in November.
"We are making strides every day in practice, and that has to be where your focus is," said Ball. "We want to better in our afternoon sessions then we were in the morning and carry that over to the next day."
Junior Aidan McGinley will start at quarterback for the Blue Hawks and be part of a loaded backfield. Nathaniel Leighton, Brad Richards, Jake Wiberg, Michael Dettore, Nathan Grant, and Adam Neil are among the players who will get carries for Exeter this season.
Ryan Graney will see time at tight end for an offense with a long history of utilizing the position (see: Long, Hunter). "We play a lot of tight ends in our sets and a lot of linemen. It is next man up football, so everyone has to be experienced and ready when they are called upon," said Ball.
Josh Norman is an all-state performer and set for a big season at both guard and defensive tackle. He will be joined on defense by Nate Ross, Wiberg, Neil, Ethan Moss and Evan Pafford in the secondary.
The linebackers will be led by Leighton, Mason Douglas, and Graney at defensive end.
Depth is what might put Exeter over the top in a very competitive/wide-open East conference. "We like the depth we have and the work the players are putting in. It's a hard-working group, and we'll need to remain that way all season in a very tough division."
For the Winnacunnet Warriors, it has been a steady build from the middle of the pack to a legitimate title contender.
When longtime assistant Ryan Francoeur took over as head coach three seasons ago, a talented but very green Winnacunnet team was pushed all over the field on opening night by a Nashua North team whose time had already arrived (Highlights: North 35, Winnacunnet 8)
A year ago, that same group stunned rival Exeter on opening night and advanced all the way to the Division I semifinals before falling to Goffstown Highlights: Goffstown 27, Winnacunnet 15
Where Francoeur's team stands today is the same place that Curtis Harris-Lopez Nashua North team was two years ago; its championship or bust for a team with enough speed & experience to be the last team standing.
"It's been a steady climb for us, and although losing at Goffstown was disappointing, we battled a very good football team and competed all afternoon. That gives us some momentum going into the season,” said Francoeur.
Kyle Tilley returns at quarterback after starting every game last season. He has a capable backup in Connor Fenlon and enough talent around him to choose his offensive weapons carefully. "Kyle has gotten bigger, better and is extremely focused," said Francoeur. "It's all business with him, and he has looked very good for us in the pre-season."
The running back spot is an embarrassment of riches, as seven different players could make an impact for the Warriors.
It begins with the all-state duo of Matt Alkire (who may be one of the five best football players in the state this season) and Tucker McCann, who rushed for 366 yards in a shortened season a year ago.
"Our greatest depth is at running back and our skill positions," said Francoeur. "Our coaching staff has a lot of confidence in whoever has the ball in their hands. We have the depth to spread the ball around."
Chris Capezzuto and Nico Zaino are part of a loaded backfield and will run behind an offensive line anchored by all-state performer Jack McCann, Jake Fredericks, and LeBron Miller. "The play of our line has been a major focus in the pre-season, and it all has to do with depth. We feel very comfortable with our starting unit and to about seven deep. After that, we lack experience, so as you'll hear from a lot of coaches, we need to stay healthy."
Three-year starter Dominic Gould gives the Warriors a burner at outside receiver ("We will take shorts down the field with him," said Francoeur) while Zach Fredericks is set for a big season at the tight end spot.
The offense has a chance to be very good, but the strength of this team might be its defense.
Alkire and Jack McCann are a pair of all-state inside linebackers, while Zaino & Matt McCann will serve as critical cogs in Winnacunnet's 4-4 defense. "I don't think you'll see many players in the state have the kind of impact on defense Matt Alkire will," said Francoeur. "We have a fast & physical defense, but what stands out is the chemistry of that group. They communicate very well."
Gould gives the Warriors a lock-down cornerback (Is Gould Island going to become a thing?) while Kevin Tilley returns at safety, and Connor Fenlon steps up into a more prominent role as a junior at cornerback.
Zach Fredericks (DE), LeBron Miller (DT), and Jake Fredericks (DT..and yes, we have a lot of brother combinations at Winnacunnet this year); all are expected to make an immediate impact.
"This is a really easy group to work with. They are a fun group to go to practice with every day," said Francoeur. "We have a lot of confidence in our ability, but this is a loaded conference and division, starting with a terrific Bedford team on opening night. It's going to be a battle every week, and we are excited to compete."
During a chaotic and sometimes interrupted 2020 Division I football season, the biggest surprise was the undefeated regular season turned in by the Dover Green Wave.
Eric Cumba’s rebuild from the days of 40-man rosters had gotten to the point where his football team, led by their all-state quarterback Darian Lopez-Sullivan, was ready to compete with the best teams in the state.
Wins over Exeter and Winnacunnet early in the season proved the Green Wave were right on track, but Covid shutouts and cancellations seemed to stall Dover’s momentum.
A much improved Exeter team beat them 14-0 in the playoffs, capping a very strange season with an equally frustrating loss.
The silver lining for Cumba’s team is they seemed to have arrived a year ahead of schedule in 2020. Nine starters return on offense and eight on defense…and that all-state quarterback hasn’t gone anywhere either.
“This is the group we projected would get us back in the discussion,” said Cumba, who won two championships as head coach at St. Thomas.
“The discussion among the teams who could be there in the end. We have a lot of kids who are two- or three-year starters, and we have the benefit of one of the best football players in the state leading us.”
Darian Lopez-Sullivan is an all-state performer at both quarterback & safety. If you decide to put him in other spots, well, he’d probably fit right in there too. “You can’t pin a title on him because he does so many things well,” said Cumba. “This summer, we were shorthanded during a workout, so we lined him up at wide receiver. He promptly caught a pass and went for a long touchdown.”
Lopez-Sullivan will be easy to find on offense, and it will not be at the receiver spot. The senior three-year starter is one of the smartest players in the state, and he will be joined in the backfield by Brett Davis, Gabe Rubio, and Brady McInnes.
“I would say our skill positions are the strongest group on our team,” said Cumba. “We are two-deep at every spot, and I like the different skill sets we have at each spot.”
Gabe Rubio will split time between the backfield and at receiver while Connor Sheehan, Bryce Carberry, and Sam Clough are all expected to contribute right away.
The depth comes from players like Nick Mullen and Jacob Barber who will all get opportunities right away.
The play in the trenches will be anchored by Cam Ansell and Hunter Linton. “We had a great summer as far as participation, and we frankly we needed that,” said Cumba. “We needed time together and to build the kind of chemistry we weren’t able to last year with all the shutdowns and uncertainty.”
Lopez-Sullivan at safety and Brett Davis at cornerback give the Green Wave a pair of all-state performers in the secondary while Luke Russell, Cole Joyal, Liam Gannon, and Brayden Fracassa will all play at linebacker.
Look for Josh Stanley, who has had a very good pre-season, to contribute on the defensive line as well.
“ It’s a very good conference, and we start with a Manchester Memorial team that was as improved as any team in our division last season,” said Cumba.
“It’s a different kind of pre-season in that the kids being together are the most important aspect on a lot of days. They know the system and roles are defined; we need to work together and make up for lost time a year ago. Feels great to be back to what feels like normal, and the kids have been working hard.”
Last year many of the seacoast schools weren't sure they were ever going to see the field. That was a bad problem to have if you were Portsmouth-Oyster River, who was among the last teams in the state to be approved to play a year ago.
"My biggest problem so far in the pre-season is I only have 76 helmets for 84 players," said head coach Brian Pafford. "We had to rush-order more helmets last week."
That's called a good problem to have.
The Clipper Cats were snake-bitten a year ago when they lost three games against Dover, Winnacunnet & Spaulding by a touchdown or less.
In 2021 they will be improved, and a strong sophomore class gets their opportunity to play a more significant role, but in a loaded conference, will it show up in the win column?
"We'll have more depth this year, but we are still very young," said Pafford. "We have a very focused and driven senior class. They're all in. We still have a lot of sophomores in key roles, and without a full season of experience a year ago, that leaves us playing catch-up."
"The kids have had a great attitude though, and the vibe in practice has been very good."
The Clippers will have options at quarterback as the speedy (as in 4.6 speed) Will Hindle gives Johnny Iofolla's offense the kind of playmaker who can convert 3rd downs with his legs.
Charlie Pasqualoni is your more traditional pocket passer with a strong arm. Both will see time behind center. "Will is an electric athlete. He makes plays out of nowhere," said Pafford. "Charlie has good size at 6'2 and can throw the football well. We think us using both quarterbacks will be to our benefit."
Max Lalime looks primed for a breakout season at running back ("He has really matured as a player and is more sure of himself now.") and will be joined in the backfield by Gunner Jackson, Ethan Yu, and Joe Sigmon.
Payton Robinson and Jackson Jones, a member of that strong sophomore class, will contribute at wide receiver while the coaching staff is hopeful tight end Cole Spires can produce right away after returning from an injury.
"We have the potential to have a very good offense; this is a group with a lot of speed," said Pafford. "What has killed us in recent years is making that critical mistake, that critical penalty, at the worst time. We have to be better late in games."
The offensive line is the very definition of the experienced but young theme Pafford talked about. Max Durkin has a chance to one day be among the best lineman in the state, a big, intelligent, and dedicated player, but still only a sophomore. "Max has a ton of potential, and he gets better by the week. He'll be an important part of our line play this season."
Senior Silas Garland will anchor that line along with 6'1 250 lb Nikolai Kozak.
The defense is led by a solid secondary. Charlie Sciretto & Charlie Pasqualoni lead the way at safety, along with Hindle at cornerback, Sigmon, Brandon Park, and Derek King, who could return at mid-season.
Luke Whisler will anchor the defensive line at nose guard and will be joined by Durkin, Gunner Jackson, Chris Edwards, and Caleb Comstock at linebacker.
"Having 84 players is a very good sign for the program. You are going to see guys earn more playing time and bigger roles as the season goes along," said Pafford.
"The challenge is that I feel like our conference is as good this year as any in the division. We'll need to clean up our mistakes and finish games better than we did a year ago, but I'm really looking forward to watching this group compete."
The rebuild at Spaulding is right on track.
Numbers continue to increase year to year, and Kevin Hebert’s team has gotten back to the brand of football that made the Red Raiders one of the toughest teams to face in all of Division I.
2021 will be about getting a ton of underclassman game experience and setting the table for 2022 & 2023. “We are very inexperienced, and last year a lot of these younger players didn’t get to play,” said Hebert. “The kids have come in ready to work, and right now, it’s about setting the culture of the program with this group and showing them the work ethic we expect.”
Three players are competing for the starting quarterback job and, as the theme of this preview continues, none have taken a snap behind center in a game. Andrew Gagne, Jacob Enscoe, and Wesley Melendez will battle it out until the opener and possibly beyond.
Isaac Lapointe is the lone returning starter on offense and will be joined on the line by Joey Gianotti.
Garrett Gauthier will see time at tight end with Lapointe, while Emmet Colby & Alex Forbes will see carries in the backfield.
The list of newcomers includes Kaiden Melendez, Welsey Alphonso, Daunte Dixon, Isaac Sanders, Owen Daigle, and Ryan Hervey. Each will get the opportunity to contribute right away.
“We enter the 2021 season with almost 80 players,” said Hebert. “Many of those will be new to the varsity level after graduating 25 seniors last season. There are plenty of open positions for guys to fill, and the energy in camp has been tremendous. We look forward to our opener vs. a tough Concord Crimson Tide program. “
West Conference Predicted order
Competing week to week with sophomores in critical positions is a pretty tricky task in Division I, where upperclassmen win you games.
Trying to integrate sophomores with no scrimmages, limited film sessions, and all during a shortened season, well, Nashua South head coach Scott Knight will be the first to tell you it won't work out very well.
"We were already set to be very inexperienced, but by mid-summer (of 2020), we didn't think there was any way we were going to have a season," said Knight of last year's team.
"When we played the shortened season, we were appreciative just to be out there, but we didn't have anywhere close to the time we needed to get everybody up to speed."
Add to all of that the fact that all-state performer Josh Compoh was lost to an injury early in the season.
Coach Knight didn't need a grief counselor to tell him it would be a rough season.
One year later, those growing pains are about to pay off, and the pieces are in place for a Nashua South playoff run.
"We are a lot farther ahead than we usually are to this point," said Knight, who enters his 32nd year as a football coach. "We know the players who are going to play; it's about where and what role they will fill."
As a sophomore Mike Rutstein earned time at quarterback two years ago before injuries knocked him out of the lineup. With all-state quarterback Chris Keefe graduated and now playing at Springfield College, he now steps back behind center for the Purple Panthers.
"He's a very hard-working kid, and he has a good understanding of what we are trying to do on both sides of the ball. He is very smart."
Josh Compoh returns at running back and is set for a big year. "He's bigger, faster, and stronger," said Knight of his all-state back. "What I've been most impressed with is his physicality. He has the attitude and the strength to knock people over, and I think you're going to see him have an outstanding season for us."
Connor Rowsell will join Compoh in the backfield as well as lining up in the slot from time to time. Karsten Lemire and Lorenzo Abreau will contribute right away at wide receiver.
Four starters return on the offensive line, led by Jimmy Brown, Brady Swisher, Josh LaCourse, Matt Harding, and CJ Vincelette. "We have good depth this season; that's part of the benefit from playing a lot of underclassmen last season," said Knight.
Compo and Harding will lead the linebackers along with Cody Goode, while Antonio Martinez will likely split time between linebacker and defensive end.
"We want our best players out on the field, so you're going to see quite a few players going both ways," said Knight. "We feel like we have the kind of depth to be sure we're not wearing them out."
Rowsell and Rutstein will man the secondary for a Panthers defense that could be the team's strength.
"We return eight starters on defense and seven on offense, so the players have hit the ground running from Day 1," said Knight. "To be out on the field again has been terrific for all of us, from the players to the coaches. We're excited to go compete."
The Merrimack Tomahawks will be in the mix again this season behind another in what feels like a long line of all-state quarterbacks.
Kyle Crampton will be one of the best quarterbacks in the state this season. That is something we know.
What we don’t know is how the pieces will fill in around him.
“ We have a lot of players that were unable to play for us this year, so it’s going to depend on new players stepping up into bigger roles,” said 7th-year head coach Kip Jackson.
“Kyle had a terrific off-season, and I think he’s set up to have a very good season,” said Jackson. “His off-season work began the day after we lost to Nashua North in the playoffs. He is someone who sets a good example for the younger players.”
Reimello Hyde and Ryan Turley will get the bulk of the carries out of the backfield while wide receiver Shea Goodwin is poised for an all-state season. “Shea has been very good for us,” said Jackson. “We have a lot of players battling for spots, and I love the attitude of this group. It’s a great group of kids.”
Cam Wheeler will anchor a new-look offensive & defensive lines while Hyde will lead the linebacking corps and Crampton the secondary.
“There are a lot of unknowns as far as our personnel, but the vibe in practices has been really good. The kids are excited to be back to normal, and you can see it in the energy they are bringing to the field every day,” said Jackson.
Bishop Guertin was one of the youngest teams in Division I a year ago, but head coach John Trisciani knew the experience would pay off down the line.
BG looks a year away from a championship or bust run but should compete for a playoff spot this season behind a strong junior class and a still young but now experienced offensive line.
"This has been a very hard-working group in the pre-season," said Trisciani. "Last year was really about getting through each week, and we were appreciative the kids got the chance to play. This season is more about building chemistry as a group and taking the next step as a program."
Junior Matt Santosuosso takes over at quarterback from his older brother Dylan and is set up for a big season on the football field & the basketball court. "He's a really good athlete, and he's very tough," said Trisciani. "We are moving him over from receiver, where he was very effective for us, but we want to utilize his talents behind center."
BG features a pair of bigger backs that should see a lot of success behind a good offensive line.
Hunter Rheaume and Charlie Bellavance will get the bulk of the carries with Santosuosso on a team that will focus on the run game.
"I think the strength of our team will be our play on the line and our running game," said Trisciani. "We are going to look to pound the ball, and we feel very good about the talent we have in those spots."
All five linemen started at least one game a year ago as Rocco Geraci, Jakob Baker, and Matt Ha anchor the unit. "With a full schedule a year ago, we'd have even more experience on the line, so it's about getting everyone on the same page as we get closer to the season opener."
Luke Kourkoulakos is expected to make an immediate impact at slot receiver, while Santosuosso has a chance for an all-state senior season at safety.
Geraci will be featured on the defensive line while Bellavance, Rheaume, and Ha lead a young but very talented group of linebackers.
"This is a good group, and we want to gain some momentum this season," said Trisciani, who enters his 4th season as head coach. "There is a better sense of what everyone's roles are than they were a year ago. We are looking forward to competing in a very tough conference/division."
One of the challenges championship-winning coaches face is getting the message across that defending champ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re still the top dog.
Coaches need to preach that this group hasn’t accomplished anything yet this season, and on Day 1, everyone starts 0-0.
For a group with a lot of returning starters, that can be a hard message to get across to your team.
“We are very young and extremely inexperienced,” said Dante Laurendi of his champion Nashua North Titans, who return just one starter on offense and three on defense.
In other words, it hasn’t been that hard of a message to deliver for Laurendi and his staff.
“The kids have come in with a really good attitude. They get their opportunity now to contribute, and we haven’t seen any signs of a hangover or entitlement from winning a year ago.”
NHsportspage player of the year Curtis Harris-Lopez is working his way up the depth chart at safety for the Holy Cross Crusaders. Who will step into his place behind center is still being determined, but both players will have an impact, whether at QB or another skill position.
Derek Finlay and Jack Peters have each run the offense in scrimmages against Bedford & Dover. A decision will come before the team’s opener next week, but both players will contribute right away. “There is a lot of competition for starting roles, and Derek & Jack are both going to be on the field for us.”
Amaury Almonte could be set for a breakout year at running back and is part of a crowded field of candidates in the backfield. “I think Amaury could have a very good season for us; he’s been very good in the pre-season,” said Laurendi.
Right tackle Rocco Ciardi is the lone returning starter and will anchor an entirely new-look offensive line. “With so little experience coming back, it’s been back to basics for our coaching staff,” said Laurendi. “That’s been fun for us. The kids know they have the opportunity to earn a spot, and they are fighting hard for that.”
Three starters return for the defense as Toby Brown Jr. returns at defensive end, Jack Peters will anchor the linebacking corps, and Derek Finlay will lead the Titans secondary.
“There are so many good teams in this division; you just have to be prepared every single week,” said Laurendi. “We are looking forward to competing with this new group.”
North Conference Predicted Order
By the time the Goffstown Grizzlies reached Nashua to play the Titans for the Division I title, they looked like a MASH unit as much as a football team.
Injuries throughout the season limited Nick Hammond’s team to just 32 eligible players for the championship game, numbers that would rival a Division IV team.
One year later, the Grizzlies are right back at the top of the Division, and if they stay healthy & find their quarterback, they have the kind of team that could be the last team standing.
“There was so much stress on these kids last year, so it’s just good to see them able to focus on getting better day to day,” said Hammond. “The vibe has been very good.”
The skill positions are loaded with all-state players with experience. Uziel Mpoyo is set for an all-state season at running back and will be joined in the backfield by Ryan Cote and newcomer Rob Baguidy, the Grizzlies all-state point guard in the winter. “He’s come in and played very well at both running back and in our secondary,” said Hammond. “He’s going to contribute for us right away.”
The receiving corps might be the best unit in the state. Led by all-state returnees Peyton Strickland, who sat out most of last season with an injury, and Caden Perry.
They’ll be joined by Aaron Duval, Will Sasso, and Jonah Lopez.
“We have a lot of confidence in that group, and they’re contributors on both sides of the ball,” said Hammond.
The offensive line is led by all-state performer Antonio Kapos, Toby Halpern, and Adam Lydick. “We have four or five players competing for the other two spots on the offensive line, so we are happy with the depth we have at that position.”
The biggest unknown is at quarterback, where Goffstown seemingly churns out 6’4 all-state caliber read & react signal-callers every two or three years.
Josh Webb and Cam Hujsak have competed all pre-season, and although only one will be behind center when the game starts at Exeter next week, both likely will see game-time early in the season. “The quarterback spot is a focal point of what we are doing in the pre-season,” said Hammond. “What we get from that position will play a big role in what we can do with our offensive game plan week to week.”
Sasso, Duval, Perry, and Baguidy, at cornerback, will man the Grizzlies secondary while Jacob Gagne, Matt Burke, and Kapos will anchor the defensive line.
The linebackers should be the strength of the team and will be led by Ryan Cote, Strickland, Nick Barry, and Seth Osbourne.
With 70 players on the roster and a trip to Exeter on opening night (we will be there for that one), the focus has not been an issue in the pre-season.
“We have 17 seniors, and they have been terrific in leading this team,” said Hammond. “It’s the kind of team you enjoy going to practice with every day.”
The Bedford Bulldogs were officially lurking a year ago before ending their season with a thud against rival Goffstown in the playoffs.
With a veteran quarterback, depth along the lines, and the usual assortment of talented playmakers, the Bulldogs are going to be in the championship mix this season and might be your sleeper team in the division.
“We have a good mix of experience and underclassmen that are battling to get out onto the field,” said Zach Matthews, who enters his 3rd season as head coach. “We have a very strong sophomore class, and that has ramped up the level of competition for positions in the pre-season.”
Stability begins with quarterback Joe Mikol, who become a starter during his sophomore season and has grown into one of the best in the state. “You’re fortunate as a coach if you have someone running your offense that has Joe’s experience. He understands what we are trying to get done and does a terrific job of communicating that to his teammates.”
“He even makes me look good sometimes when he switches into a good play that works,” joked Matthews.
Russell Erwin returns at running back after leading the team with 464 yards on the ground a year ago. He will be joined in a deep backfield by junior Logan Sfeir and Owen Christopher, who will also see significant playing time at defensive end. “I’d say the depth of our running backs is one of the strengths of our team,” said Matthews.
The youth movement is evident at the wide receiver spot where the team’s top three receivers Soloman Sanchez (now playing at UNH), Aaron Zwickau, and Aaron Skaling, have all graduated.
Colby Snow, another two-way starter, and Andrew Grudinskas will step into more prominent roles at the receiver spot alongside tight end Parker Henrichon, who is primed for a big season on both sides of the ball.
Junior Cal McAuliffe gives the Bulldogs another bruising athlete at tight end and will contribute right away.
The offensive line returns three starters and will return intact next season as Matthews will start three juniors and two sophomores (the theme as always…Bedford is in the mix every year).
Jake Bozza, Jake Benn, Hunter Ducharme, Ryan Allard, and Spencer Henrichon will anchor a good offensive line.
Irwin and Colin Chandonnet will lead the Bulldogs at the linebacker position, while Owen Christopher, Finn O’Neil, and Evan Cibotti will all contribute right away.
“The kids have been focused throughout the pre-season, and it’s obvious that things feel back to normal,” said Matthews.
“There are too many good teams in this division to declare one team the lone favorite. We hope that we are playing our best football at the end of the season and we are in that mix come November.”
The Manchester Memorial Crusaders were the surprise team of the 2020 season. Only years removed from a school-record losing streak, Rob Sturgis’s team won 3 games with a team full of underclassmen.
The goal for 2021 is clear; “Last year we were able to compete with good teams,” said Sturgis. “This year, we want to get to the point where we are beating good teams.”
All-state quarterback Jeffrey Josefik graduated but in his place comes converted wide receiver Braden Hafeman, who has served as the back-up QB each of the past two seasons. “He’s ready; he is going to hit the ground running,” said Sturgis of his new quarterback. “He understands what we are trying to do, and he’s very capable of having a big season for us. He has the keys to the offense.”
All-state performer Kai Colson returns at running back and will be joined in the backfield by returning starter Erik Seymore. “We are very confident in our skill position players; we have a lot of speed in that group,” said Sturgis. “Colson is the kind of player who is always one play away from breaking off a run or taking a pass that turns the momentum in our favor.”
Sawyer Bergeron is another returning contributor at wide receiver and will play alongside all-state performer/two-way standout Jacob Calabro. “Jacob is a difference-maker for us. He’s a huge part of what we are looking to do on both sides of the ball.”
The offensive line features a lot of size but no seniors. Three juniors and two sophomores will start for the Crusaders as Adam Jacques and 280 lb. Mene Adumene anchor the unit.
Both Matt Wilson and August Connors return as two-year starters at linebacker, while Bergeron and Hafeman will lead the Crusaders secondary.
“We have 20 seniors on the roster and 70 kids in the program,” said Sturgis. “So the climb is right on schedule. This is a group that has waited for their opportunity, and it’s about competing with the Goffstown’s, Bedford’s, Exeter’s, and other elite teams in our division. We feel like we play in a very tough conference and the seacoast teams are all going to be very tough.”
“We were able to bring respect back to the program last season. It’s about taking that next step this season, and that next step is beating some of the top teams in the state.”
If you close your eyes and randomly point to a player on the Concord High football team, there is a very good chance you’re pointing at a freshman.
“Out of 85 players, I’d say about 40 are freshman,” said first-year head coach James Corkum.
Make that about a 50% chance.
Concord has struggled in recent years, but there is momentum in the program with a big freshman class and underclassmen ready to step into more prominent roles. “There are a lot of position battles, so that creates a lot of competition in practices,” said Corkum. “That brings terrific energy to the field every day.”
Zack Doward returns at quarterback after earning the job last season as a sophomore.
The biggest leap in athletic ability usually comes between a player’s sophomore and junior seasons. Everything Doward has shown in the pre-season points to him taking a big step forward this season. “He hit a growth spurt, so you combine that with his comfort level in the offense, and you have a player who is much improved from a year ago.”
It will be a crowded backfield for the Tide as team captain Cody Rashed will lead a group including Elia Bahuma, Jamari Arzu, Kaevryl Madison, and Luke Champney.
Matt O’Rourke looks poised for a breakout season at wide receiver while Austin Wells will step in and contribute right away at tight end.
Corkum likes the size and the depth of his offensive line; they just need experience. “That is a group that is coming along well in the pre-season. We have a lot of size along the group, and it’s a unit we want to see get better week to week.”
Hunter Jeffers will anchor the play on both sides of the line while the linebackers will be led by Rashed and the secondary by O’Rourke, Madison, Devon Duncan and Peyton Yearout.
“We are throwing a lot at them,” said Corkum, who said the team would run their offense under center this season. “The attitude has been excellent, though, and we feel like we have a lot of interchangeable parts to work with. We’re excited to compete.”
South Conference Predicted Order
The Salem Blue Devils quest for the 2021 title began almost immediately after a 33-28 semifinal game loss to eventual champion Nashua North.
Salem knew just how close they were to handing the Titans their only loss, and they also realized they had a nucleus coming back that could finish the mission. “We have a lot of skill position players back, players that have come up through the youth level together and been friends almost all of their lives,” said 2nd-year head coach Steve Abraham.
“That’s carried over into what has been a very good pre-season so far.”
The Blue Devils feature the best backfield in the state led by Dante Fernandes & Aidan McDonald, who combined for over 1,000 yards rushing in a Covid shortened regular season.
It doesn’t end there.
Damian Gigante, Tommy Ahlers (who was injured against Windham last season and missed the Nashua North playoff game), and David Jacques all will contribute right away in a loaded backfield.
“Unquestionably, that group is the strength of our team,” said Abraham. “They bring out the best in each other. They compete every day in practice; who runs the fastest 40, who takes certain plays for more yardage, who can block the best on a particular play.”
“They are all really good kids, and they’ve been friends for years. As a coach, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Noah Mustapha will take over at quarterback after serving as the team’s back-up the past two years. “He has put in his time and is ready to go,” said Abraham. “He could have started a year ago with a full pre-season, so we feel very good about him as our quarterback this year.”
Former quarterback turned wide receiver Kaleb Bates is set for an all-state season at wide receiver & defensive back. His head coach can’t say enough good things about his senior leader. “He has moved positions and taken on that challenge. Kaleb helps the younger players get up to speed and has become the ultimate team leader. He’s been outstanding for us.”
Matt McCloskey will line up across the field from Bates at wide receiver and gives the Blue Devils a pair of deep threats for when teams load the box against their vaunted rushing attack.
Jack Dailey is a 3-year starter on the offensive line and will anchor a unit that includes John Smith and Trevor Darisse, who has had a very strong pre-season.
The defense will be led by many of the same names, with David Jacques contributing on the defensive line with Matt Goetz and Peter Beeley set to have very good seasons as well.
There is no true #1 in Division I, there are too many good teams who likely will be separated in the end by only a play or two, but Salem is ready to take that next step come November.
“ Last year was my first year as head coach, but, at times, I was more of a coordinator in making sure we followed protocols and kept everyone healthy and eligible to play,” said Abraham. “This has a much different feel, and we as a coaching staff are back to focusing on getting better every day and preparing for each opponent.”
“There are a lot of very good football teams across our division, and we hope that we can get to the playoffs and be playing our best football when it matters most.”
Pinkerton Academy Hall of Fame head coach Brian O’Reilly has 44 years on his resume and 320 career wins, but 2020 will go down as one he won’t have any trouble remembering.
The Astros season seemingly ended before it really got a chance to get started. Pinkerton only played 3 games (going 2-1) and was among the first teams, and certainly highest profile, to cancel the remainder of the season due to Covid issues.
Pinkerton returns 14 players who started during that abbreviated season and enough depth & talent to compete for the Division I title and put 2020 squarely in the rearview.
Nate Campos returns at quarterback and will be joined in a very good backfield by Jacob Albert, Cole Yennaco, Jacob Marchand, Don Terrio, Lorenzo Milana, Joey Gallo & fullbacks Picasso Bates & Jack Mackiernan.
The mammoth offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by 6’6 320 lb. George Nigro, Anthony Ferrenzio, 6’6 260 lb. Edward De Veen and Jason Santuccio.
6’4 tight end Anthony De Salvo is a player to watch at the skill position along with Logan Gokey and Russell Patrikas.
Campos, Albert, Gokey, Marchand and Patrikas all return to the secondary and will be joined by newcomers Gavin Kattar, Logan Barnhart and John Hill.
The linebackers will be led by Mackiernan, Bates, Terrenzio, Yennaco and Ben Adams.
When you talk to Londonderry head coach Jimmy Lauzon about his team, it's hard not to be reminded of the 2016 version of the Lancers.
A team loaded with underclassmen that struggled out of the gate as sophomores got acclimated to the speed and intensity of the varsity level.
Two years later, Lauzon's Lancers walked off the turf at UNH as Division I champions.
I'm neither predicting a 0-4 start or a 2023 state championship, but even Lauzon has a familiar feeling about this group. "I do sense a little deja vu with this group. We have a good group of seniors who are not handing anything to an underclassman, but we also have a very strong sophomore class, and they want to play," said Lauzon.
"I'm very hesitant to put sophomores out there, but when we have done that here in the pre-season, they have performed well. What it has all led to are competitive practices. Kids understand they have an opportunity to earn playing time."
Those pre-season battles include the quarterback spot where senior Aidan Washington is battling junior Drew Heenan for the starting job. "It's been a very good competition, and we have a lot of confidence in both players," said Lauzon. "I'm more inclined to name a starter and not mix in two quarterbacks, but we will see how it plays out."
There is both talent and depth at the running back position as the team's second-leading rusher a year ago, Hayden Austen returns with Matt Perron, Jake Schena & Andrew Soucy, who has been one of the pleasant surprises of the pre-season.
There is talent at the skill positions; it's just about getting game experience for a group that includes Colby Ramshaw, Trevor Weinmann, Andrew Coleman, Kyle Stebbins, Dylan Wrisley, and Nathan Rasario.
"You think you are set at a position and then a player just starts entering that mix," said Lauzon. "That's great to see."
The offensive and defensive lines will replace all five starters from the Salem playoff loss (we covered) last season. Lauzon may not have a starter back, but he loves the potential of the group.
"The group has been working extremely hard, going back to the weight room over the winter," said Lauzon. "We need experience, but we have talent, size, and depth. It's a group I can't wait to see come together."
Riley Boles is one of the best defensive players in the division and will play a big role offensively. He will be joined on a new look defense by Weinmann, Ramshaw, and linebacker Nathan Pedrick.
"I could rattle off six or seven teams who could be the last team standing," said Lauzon, who has been my go-to forecaster the last five years. "It's going to come down to who is playing good football in November, who gets the breaks, and who stays healthy. There are a lot of very good teams in this division, and for us, the goal is to compete with best teams week to week."
The Windham Jaguars have 90 players in the program and 2020 in the rearview window. The pieces are in place for a bounce-back season as head coach Jack Byrne’s team features a good mix of senior leadership and promising underclassman.
“Last year felt more about getting through each day than preparing for your next opponent, and I’m sure it was that way for just about every coach in the state,” said Byrne.
“We have a full coaching staff and an entire year in the weight room to prepare, so the feeling is all very positive.”
(Random rant in the middle of a 8,000-word preview: Windham is one of our favorite spots to cover a game… it is 2021…can we please put some stands around the field? I mean Newfound & Farmington have stands….Windham still doesn’t??)
The newest member of that staff is longtime Nashua South & Londonderry assistant coach Lauren Gaudette who brings a ton of experience and a strong reputation to her new role. “Lauren has been tremendous. We’re fortunate to have her on our staff,” said Byrne. “She’s made an immediate impact.”
Josh Sweeney and Billy Depietro are competing for the starting quarterback job in the pre-season, and Byrne expects both players to see time behind center. “We are very comfortable with either player, and it’s been good to see them competing day to day.”
Windham never has an issue finding capable running backs, and 2021 will be no different as the Jaguars have a ton of depth in the backfield, led by Tiger An, Dom Fiore, Jake Micciche, and AJ Fox.
Bryan Desmarias and Cole Peterson lead the skill position players at wide receiver & tight end while the offensive line will be anchored by Jackson Milano, who is set to have a big season, Aidan Goss and Joe Lisa.
“We don’t have that 280-300 lb across the line size, but we have a lot of strength and some very good athletes,” said Byrne. “We had our best off-season in the weight room in all my time here at the school.”
“Our skill position players are probably the strength of our team, so I do see the offense being much improved this season.”
Defensively Milano and Keegan Parke will lead the linebacking group while Joe Hero anchors the defensive line, and Vito Mancini will lead the Jaguars secondary.
“It’s been great to get back to normal again. The wins & losses always have a way of taking care of themselves, and we will be prepared to win every week, but we do this for the kids. Just seeing them out there working together again, knowing they have a full season ahead of them, has just been terrific.”
2020 was rough on all of us, but for the Alvirne Broncos, it felt at times as if it was trying to bury them.
Tarek Rothe's team was moved back up to Division I after a strong run in Division II, including a 29-18 championship game loss to Plymouth three years ago. This all came after two very good classes had just graduated.
The result was underclassmen being put in challenging positions and sometimes in lopsided contests. "We had sophomores, and sometimes even freshman lined up against juniors & seniors," said Rothe of the 2020 rebuild. "That took us out of a lot of games pretty quickly."
The pieces just didn't fit. You had a senior all-state quarterback in Kyle Gora playing behind an inexperienced line and the youngest team in the division playing in the toughest conference.
Rothe's Broncos will still be among the youngest teams in the division in 2021, but there is some experience to go with it and hope in what lies ahead. "We are going to be competitive this season, and we will go into every game very well prepared."
Replacing Gora, a 3-year starter, is priority one, and two players were competing for the job early in camp. Senior Jacob Bradshaw and junior Zach Peters will both get their shot at the starting job, while sophomore Andrew Harmen may get his opportunity as well.
Bryant Montgomery will serve as the Broncos' primary ball carrier. "He's a tough kid and an extremely hard-working player," said Rothe. "I think he is set up to have a very good season for us."
There is talent at the skill positions, beginning with all-state TE/DE Brendan Graham, who will be a focal point of the Alvirne offense. "Brendan is a real weapon for us, and he causes mismatch problems for the other team," said Rothe.
Anthony Ferullo will be a two-way starter at wide receiver and cornerback and play alongside returning starter/slot receiver Andrew Porter. "We like the talent we have at the skill positions."
The offensive line has a chance to be a good one and is anchored by center Dom Willard, LT Alex Lawson ("He's been terrific for us," said Rothe. "I can't say enough good things about him."), guard Geoff Keegan and fellow guard Connor Gibson.
Alvirne will be able to pressure the quarterback with Graham and Alvin Thumi. Tyler Allen will lead the linebacking corps along with sophomore DJ Thibeault, who has no trouble picking up the defensive assignments. "He's a very smart kid, and so we feel like he can step right in and contribute."
Nick Allard will see time at both outside linebacker and as the team's place-kicker (he drilled a 45-yarder in practice) while Andrew Porter moves from the secondary to OLB.
Colin Fay and Brandon LaVarnway will lead the Broncos secondary.
"Last year was frustrating in that we weren't able to compete on most nights. Our game-plan was out the window by halftime," said Rothe. "I absolutely see us going in the right direction, though, and with 40 freshman and sophomores in the program, I am excited about the future."
Coming tomorrow: Division II