If there were any doubt on the outcome of the Division III championship game going in, it evaporated the moment Pelham’s Jake Herrling broke a long touchdown run through & past the Stevens defense.
The Pythons had been the best team in Division III all season long, and after surviving a determined and battled-tested Monadnock team in the semifinals, they cruised to the title.
A year filled with Covid cancellations, social distancing, and washing footballs after practice had taken its toll.
Division III was like a David E Kelly series where everyone who meets up, in the end, has a story about how they got there.
Stevens advanced after Winnisquam (the defending Division IV champs) had to forfeit their semifinal game after a positive test.
Pelham nearly had their undefeated season come to an end by the same fate.
Inter-Lakes Moultonborough only played two games, and one of them was against a Kennett team they had no business being on the field with. It was tough sledding to November all around.
We got there, though, and Pelham’s celebration on camera with us, viewed over 4,000 times, served as an excellent reminder that it was all worth it.
“ It’s important for the kids to get back to normal and that was pretty hard to do last year,” said longtime Stevens head coach Paul Silva. “ You can see how much more energy these kids have now when there is a lot less uncertainty heading into the season.”
Today in the third of our four pre-season previews we take a look at Division III, where ten teams battle to get to where Pelham stood a year ago.
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Division III Predicted Order
The Pelham Pythons don't need a history lesson on what happened in the 2020 playoffs. Eight starters return for what remains the best team in Division III.
Tom Babaian's team finished off an undefeated season with wins over Campbell (we'll get to that one in a moment), Monadnock, and Stevens (Division III Championship game highlights & interview) to earn the championship.
But it nearly ended off the field two weeks earlier, as Covid concerns canceled their first-round game against Campbell.
The Cougars, and head coach Glen Costello, could have taken the win by forfeit (the Pythons had beaten Campbell 40-0 earlier in the season) but chose to wait and play on Monday night when Pelham was finally cleared as a team.
It was a class move by Costello & his program and it did not go unnoticed or been forgotten. "I give so much credit to Coach Costello and everyone at Campbell," said Pelham head coach Tom Babaian.
"That was a challenging situation for our kids but theirs as well. They could have taken the win and moved on, but he (Costello) told me he wanted the game decided by the kids on the field. I have the ultimate respect for him as a competitor."
Campbell's decision allowed the best team to end up in the winners' circle, although a gritty gutty Monadnock team battled them to a 16-10 decision in the semifinals. The best team, in the end, won the title.
Jake Travis returns at quarterback and will be asked to do more this season by the coaching staff. "This is a big season for Jake," said Babaian. "He steps up into more of a leadership role after the graduation of Jake Herrling and Zach Jones. We feel like he's ready for that."
The backfield is loaded again as the team's second-leading rusher Ethan Demmons (293 yards and a team-high five touchdowns during a shortened season a year ago) and Derek Muise return to the lineup along with Kevin Bodenrader & Alex Carroll.
Dom Herrling, battling nagging injuries in the pre-season, and Scott Paquette will each contribute right away along with tight end Jake Cawthorn, who could be set for a breakout year at receiver.
"We have a lot of depth at the skill positions and a lot of experience in the backfield," said Babaian. "The question mark of our team is the offensive line."
That unit will be led by all-state returnee Noah Coppinger. " He has been terrific for us and has been a real leader for that group,” said Babaian. “We have had good position battles through the pre-season, but it is going to take game experience to come together."
Demmons and Coppinger will lead the front seven, while Jake Travis & Bodenrader will lead the Pythons secondary.
"This group has put the championship behind them and is focused only on what we can do on the field this season," said Babaian.
"We still have a lot to prove and a lot of new players at key positions. It'll take some time to come together but are excited to get going."
After the departure of Ryan Avery, after a terrific run as head coach at Monadnock, Rob Lotito steps in and knows the expectations year in and year out.
It won’t be hard for the kids to adjust to as he has been the offensive coordinator for the past four seasons.
Lotito steps up into the role with a team made up mostly of sophomore and juniors. The Huskies return five starters from a team that gave eventual Pelham its toughest test in the playoffs; losing 16-10.
The offense will be led by a pair of seniors. Quarterback Carson Shanks and running back Hayden Haddock give the Huskies two dependable starters who grew up in the run first system.
Lotito is going to depend heavy on the running ability of Haddock as he will get the majority of the touches in the backfield. As the season progresses Lotito hopes that Kevin Putnam can help take some of the work load off of Haddock.
Two Juniors will be leading the Huskies offensive line in Jack Lorenz and Gabe Sanchez. Both are 6’4 and 200 plus lbs. giving the Huskies the base for their running attack.
Defense has been the focus of the pre-season as Lotito is tries to incorporate new starters at every level of the defense.
The front seven of the defense should be a strength again, and has been a calling card of one of the most successful programs in the state over the past ten years.
Joe Lotito and Ethan Jarvis lead the linebacking core as improved pass defense has been a focus during the pre-season.
The Huskies have a lot of new faces but it’s been the system and the leadership of Ryan Avery, Rob Lotito and their staff that have kept Monadnock in the conversation season after season.
Expect the Huskies to get through the initial growing pains and once again earn their spot in the post-season.
When you talk about Division III football you can’t go very long without bringing up Campbell, a program that has been to the championships game two of the past four seasons and has been on e of the most consistent programs in the state over the last decade.
Glen Costello’s seniors class were freshman when they lost back at UNH to Monadnock in 2018 and are looking to finish their careers playing into late November.
Costello is ready to lead what he says is a hungry group ready to bounce back after a down year in 2020.
Two year starter junior quarterback Jackson Kanaley will be leading the Cougar offense and Costello believes he will also carry the ball effectively for the Cougars as well.
Kanaley will be joined in the back field by a running back by committee made up of seniors in Garrett Arnold, John Newell and Nate Perry.
Costello talks highly of his skill position players and feels like tight end George Ivas may be read for a breakout season. Look for Ivas to be a target for Kanaley in the red zone.
The Cougars will be led in the trenches by Brady Robicheau, Colby Bennet and Evan St Pierre.
The secondary may be one of the team’s strengths and will be led by Nick Carignan as well as Garret Arnold who Costello considers one of the best defensive backs in the division. Expect the Cougars to be fast defensively as Costello likes the athletic ability of the group.
Underclassmen Nick Hershberger and Scott Hershbereger have both impressed in the pre-season for a Campbell team that should find themselves in their familiar spot in the playoffs come November.
Coach Rob Cathcart and the Trinity Pioneers are working to get back to where they were in 2019 when John Thibault, Avery Fraser, and Jacob Brown led them to the Division III championship game, where they defeated Lebanon.
Unlike that senior-led team, the Pioneers will rely on a talented group of sophomores. That group, while lacking varsity experience, has the opportunity to step in and play right away.
James Thibault will lead Trinity in the backfield and is someone who head coach Rob Cathcart has praised as a team leader on both sides of the ball.
Thibault will be joined by Devohn Ellis and Bobby Kinsella, who each should get a lot of carries in the Pioneers run-first offense.
Quarterbacks Jack Service and Paul Thibault (yes, there is another Thibault coming through the football program for Division III coaches to have to deal with) will be splitting the duties behind center.
Cathcart likes the flexibility both players give the offense, and both will see the field whether it is at quarterback or another skill position.
Jameson Farley, part of the talented sophomore class, will anchor the offensive and defensive lines while Thibault leads a talented group of linebackers and junior Jordan Joyal.
Cathcart is high on freshman Jeff Hickey who is expected to step in at outside linebacker for what can be a very fast defense.
Cathcart still isn’t sure what he will get out of his underclassman but has a group with the potential for another run in the near future.
'Playoff' Paul Silva has skill position players to replace but experience in the trenches for the Stevens Cardinals.
"We were already dealing with low numbers, and then we lost a couple of key players in our first scrimmage," said Silva. "So it's next man up. We have a lot of new places in key roles, and we will work to improve by the week because we know teams are going to come after us."
Senior Zack Bundy takes over at quarterback after backing up all-state signal-caller Owen Taylor last season. "He's put in the work and worked hard for the opportunity," said Silva. "We are going to take some time to come together offensively, but Zack is certainly ready to step in and lead us."
Pascal Lemieux is one of the Cardinals' five returning starters. He was slowed by a foot injury a year ago, which limited his carries on offense; he now will get the bulk of the carries in a backfield that includes Jai-Lique Ribeiro and Hunter Christian.
All three will play at the wide receiver spot as well when Stevens goes to their spread offense. Tyler Christian was set to be the team's tight end but was injured in the team's first scrimmage.
Cam Cummings, who brings good size to the line, will step into the role.
The team's strength will be the offensive and defensive lines where five juniors will lead the way. Colby Shepard, Cam Oxton, AJ Rozzell, Lucas Smith, and Carson Vieguth give Silva a small but athletic & experienced offensive and defensive line.
"We have confidence in that group," said Silva. "They are developing a good chemistry."
"We need to become more physical on defense; that's something we are putting a lot of emphasis on in the pre-season," said Silva.
Lemieux, who had 14 tackles in the championship game loss to Pelham, will lead a good linebacking group, including Hunter Christian & Colby Shepard. AJ Rozzell and Lucas Smith will play opposite one another at defensive end.
The secondary is led by Jai-Lique Ribeiro & Aiden White.
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"We are going to have to work hard to get into the playoffs," said Silva when told of my pending bet. "Pelham is just an awesome team; they do some many things well from blocking to tackling. Monadnock is such a good program, and Campbell is always so well prepared. It's going to be tough week to week, but we are excited to compete."
Heading into his 21st year as head coach, Craig Kozens will be returning 28 players from the past season while he only graduated eight.
Craig Kozens Laconia Sachems hope a young nucelaus is able to develop around a solid senior class after a good off-season both on the field and in the weight room.
Kozens is looking forward to this season as the group is a ‘hard-working group” and a “fun group” to coach so far and has high expectations for not only this year but also for the years to come.
When Kozens talks about this younger group, it starts with the quarterback who’s under center; sophomore Carson Tucker.
Tucker will be joined by senior Cole Roy in the backfield who is expected to get the bulk of the carries.
If teams start to load the box, Tucker will have his options of 5’11” wide out Rowan Jones as a deep threat along with his 6’4 security blanket, tight end Keaton Beck, who looks poised for an all-state season.
The question mark is an inexperienced offensive & defensive line after losing four starters to graduation a year ago.
Kozens believes there is potential amongst the players vying for starting jobs and hopes that the group improves week to week..
Linebacker Alex Richardson will run defense for the Sachems, leading a good front seven.
The secondary should be a strength of the defense and will be led by Tim Ausevich, Logan Sanchez, and Isaiah Sorrell.
Coming tomorrow: Division IV