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Division II football: MV poised for playoff return with Niyomugabo, Burt

Tucker Burt figures to be a key part of Merrimack Valley's explosive offense.

Tucker Burt figures to be a key part of Merrimack Valley's explosive offense.

Even in his first year at the helm, Merrimack Valley’s Jim Coll knows one of the cardinal rules of being a head coach.

If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.

“I am not smart enough, or have a big enough ego to try to change anything,” he said. “So from that perspective, we are going to try to keep things going just the way they were last year.”

The way things worked last year was to put the ball in Ivan Niyomugabo’s hands and leave it up to the dynamic quarterback to run or pass the Pride to victory. It was a success – Merrimack Valley went 7-2 after going winless the season before, and reached the playoffs before exiting with a loss to Portsmouth.

Niyomugabo is back under center, standout running back Tucker Burt is back beside him, and the Pride figures to be back among the contenders in Division II – perhaps even, given the division’s wide-open nature this season, a favorite.

“We don’t want to get the hype and the hopes up until we know what we’ve got going,” said Coll, who’s been with the MV varsity since 2007. “But we are thinking about it. … This is wide open, and there’s no reason to think we can’t be there as well. That’s our goal. Our goal is to go further.”

There are plenty of reasons for optimism, particularly on offense, where Niyomugabo will be running the show after earning first-team All-State honors.

“I think we’re looking at a 1,000-yard rusher, and it would not surprise me if he had 2,000 yards passing,” Coll said. “I think he’ll have a big year, passing yardage-wise as well.”

He’ll have another weapon at his disposal in Burt, whose quickness makes him a home run threat on the ground.

“It would not surprise me if in an eight-game season we had two 1,000-yard rushers,” Coll said. “I’ve never seen anybody jump-cut as quick as Tucker Burt does. He sees holes where they’re not. He’s got a great feel for the game as far as where the plays are going to be opening up in front of him.”

It’s a talented arsenal at MV, and it’s deep. Newcomer Evan Martin should contribute quickly in a receiving corps alongside Devon McGrath and Tommy Schneider, and halfback Tristan McNeel returns as a threat behind a line led by Steve Holmes and Jon Plante.

“I think we can continue to do exactly what we did last year,” Coll said.

It’s a different story on defense, where only two starters are back. Holmes, Plante and Andrew Young will look to man the line, while McNeel, Trevor Hardy, Ben Thistle and Ian Curtin form a solid linebacking corps. Burt will anchor the defensive backfield at safety, and be joined by Martin, McGrath, Brad Merrill and Casey Thibeault.

John Stark

The Generals’ ground-and-pound style is getting a makeover. John Stark has a new quarterback in 6-foot-4, 200-pound Drew McQuarrie, and Coach Jim O’Rourke likes what he sees.

“He’s got good size, got a good arm, and really works at it,” he said. “He works with a quarterbacks coach in the offseason and on weekends. He works at it. He doesn’t just show up in August and roll the balls out.”

McQuarrie, a standout athlete who also plays basketball at Stark, should bring life to the Generals’ passing game and offer a change from the enclosed, under-center style that in years past was the only plan of attack in Stark’s playbook.

“We really were more of a wing-T, ground-and-pound it, three yards and a cloud of dust, all that stuff,” said O’Rourke, whose team went 2-7 last year. “It’s hard to function when everybody knows that’s what you’ve got to do. If you give them no threat of stretching them out a little bit, horizontally or vertically, it can be tough.”

John Stark has some playmakers back in the fold in running backs Adam King and Terry Zervos and wide receiver Gage Huard, but a valuable addition could be sophomore Connor Gorski, who gives McQuarrie a 6-foot-4 target.

“He’s got good hands, good leaping ability,” O’Rourke said. “He’s tall. He really catches the ball at it’s highest point.”

The defense, while thin, has talent. Jacob Sawyer leads a defensive line also consisting of Zach Hamilton, Zach Feudner and John Brown, and Cody Ledoux, Phil Thibeault and Zervos give Stark a fast group of linebackers.

If the combination works, Stark could take steps in building a culture of success that has been a long time coming.

“The objective is to be in every game, and the record will take care of itself,” O’Rourke said. “If you can compete the entire game and have a chance to win in the fourth quarter, I’ll be a pretty happy coach.”

Pembroke

Ray Connolly molded the Manchester Memorial attack into one of Division I’s best while calling the shots as offensive coordinator last year.

Now with the Spartans, Connolly is confident he can accomplish the feat at his next stop as well.

“I think they’re capable of great things,” the team’s new head coach said. “If we stay healthy and the kids stick to the plan, then the sky’s the limit for these guys.”

It starts at quarterback, where Vinny Dustin takes over full-time while last year’s signal caller, Chris Cushing, moves to running back. Seniors Liam Wright and Krys Abbott, another returning starter, give Dustin two solid receivers, and Mike Patenaude, Mike St. Jacques and Shane Gillen return to the line, which also gets a boost from 6-foot-7, 300-pound junior Tim Wilson.

“Our top 11 on offense right now (is) one of the better offenses that I’ve seen, that I’ve been a part of, and I’ve been part of some good ones,” Connolly said.

The defensive line will look like the offensive line with tackle Jason Lessard also adding a 6-foot, 330-pound presence, and Pembroke will also sport an experienced secondary led by Dustin, Wright and Abbott.

The combination has a high upside, and Connolly is telling his troops, even on the heels of a rough 3-6 season, to think big.

“We keep talking playoffs, and I think anything less than that would be disappointing,” Connolly said. “That’s our goal. I really feel we can do it.”

Kearsarge

The Cougars faced a difficult adjustment last year in moving up from Division V in the realignment, and in their second crack at Division II, Coach Zach Matthews said the key is for the team to make it as easy for themselves as possible on the defensive side of the ball.

“We just gave up way too many big plays last year,” said Matthews, whose team went 2-7. “We need to make people drive the field, and really earn their points. You can’t give up long runs and long passes. That’s really been our focus.”

Kearsarge’s strength is in the junior class, a unit that was rushed into action last season but has been honed by the year of experience into a solid nucleus. At defense, Austin Hogankamp (switching from linebacker) and Patrick Moore provide the push at defensive end around 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Joe Merullo in the middle, and the team will get another presence in the pass rush from junior Nathaniel Hargreaves, who’ll line up at outside linebacker.

“Throughout the preseason, he’s really shown a nose for the football,” Matthews said. “Being at the right place at the right time, and getting there and making some of those big plays.”

Cameron Webster, another junior, joins Hargreaves on the outside, with junior Riley Antle and senior Bryson Barthol playing inside. Antle is also the team’s top offensive player, a hard-nosed runner who rushed for over 900 yards last season and gives the Cougars a bruiser between the tackles.

“He’s a big boy who really has trained hard and worked hard,” Matthews said of the 6-2, 220-pound back. “He’s definitely going to be the heart of what we do offensively.”

Senior Ryan Stanley returns to lead the run-oriented attack at quarterback. He’ll have weapons in change-of-pace backs Elliot Lukaitis (a returning starter) and Justin Norris, while Webster at wideout and Barthol at tight end return as options in the passing game. Just as they do on defense, Hogankamp and Moore will lead the push at the line.

“We make no secrets about the fact that we’re going to want to run the football,” Matthews said. “We want to pound the football, we want to run the football.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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