Division III football preview: Conference changes should create strongest postseason field
The entire structure of high school football was reworked last year. This season, Division III gets another realignment as the four conferences consolidate into two – South (Bishop Brady, Bow, Winnisquam, Campbell, Epping/Newmarket, Farmington/Nute, Raymond) and North (Franklin, Gilford, Fall Mountain, Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, Mascoma, Newfound, Newport, Stevens).
Eight teams will still make the playoffs, but now that will be the top four from each conference. That should eliminate some of the inequalities that occurred last year when 4-4 teams were making the postseason over squads with better records because two schools from each conference qualified for the playoffs. And some coaches see other benefits.
“We’re excited to see some new teams and new faces,” Winnisquam Coach Pat Riberdy said. “I’ll miss the old rivalries, but I think something different like this will give us a boost.”
The season also starts a week later for the D-III teams, which will kick off next weekend.
The good news for the Green Giants is they have Brendan Johnson returning as a four-year starter at quarterback. The bad news is he’s one of just 10 upperclassmen on the team’s 32-man roster.
“Brendan is a good building block to have,” said first-year Coach Matt Shaw, who has spent much of the preseason teaching the basics to his young team.
Shaw, a former quarterback at Brady, likes to pass the ball, so he’ll rely on Johnson’s arm to help move the Brady offense. Junior tight end Chris Thurber, who was the second-leading receiver on last year’s 4-5 team that lost in the D-III quarterfinals, is Johnson’s favorite target, but all-purpose athletes Aidan Plumpton and Spenser Sloane and receivers Andrew Jousset and Rich Sullivan will all also see some balls thrown in their direction.
Sophomore Moses Murenzi will power the running game. He’ll be looking for holes behind a line that has a good mix of athleticism in guards Duncan O’Reilly and Tyler Preston, and size in tackles Matt Fogarty and Craig Newcomb and center Tommy Agliata, a transfer from Pinkerton.
Chase Phaneuf, another former Brady player, takes over as the Giants defensive coordinator. His primary point of emphasis this preseason has been tackling, which was a problem last year. O’Reilly, a senior captain, and Fogarty will anchor the middle of the defensive line, which will have Dan Kelly and Murenzi on the ends. Junior Nate Raffa, one of the team’s leading tacklers last year, Sean Sullivan and Thurber highlight the linebacking crew. Patrick Earley, Jousset and Plumpton will be regulars in the secondary, with Johnson coming on in obvious passing situations.
“My goal is for us to be competitive in every game,” Shaw said. “I want us to play with intensity until the clock reads four zeroes.”
After losing the first game of the 2013 season, the Falcons reeled off 10 straight wins on their way to the D-III title. Along the way, Matt Ehrenberg became the first 1,000-yard rusher in the 16-year history of the school, piling up 1,512 yards and 23 touchdowns. Ehrenberg is back for his senior year and he should have another monster season, but he’s not a one-man team. Just ask him.
“We really have to play as a team, we can’t be selfish,” Ehrenberg said. “That’s how we made it as far as we did last year, and if we want to win another championship, we have to do the same thing.”
The Falcons have two other solid running backs who can share the load in juniors Chris Robbins and Gavin Lacourciere, and an experienced wingback in senior Casey Iasillo. Senior Sean Stewart will take over at quarterback, and “he’s improved quite a bit. He’s put in his time and he’s ready to take the helm for the offense,” said Bow Coach Paul Cohen, who is entering his 14th year as the team’s head coach.
The offensive line won’t have the size it did last year, but there’s still plenty of talent there with center Alec Tellifson and tackle Tucker Johnson returning as starters and guards Kyle Milne and Tony Roberts returning with ample varsity experience. Sophomore Nate Alford will lead a deep group of tight ends in Bow’s two-tight end, ground-and-pound offense.
Bow has even more experience back on the defensive side, starting in the secondary with cornerbacks Jason Smick and Kyle Barrington and safety Ehrenberg. The linebackers have all made plenty of hits at the varsity level – Milne and Lacourciere on the inside and Robbins and Iasillo on the outside. And three of the four defensive linemen made big contributions last year – ends Roberts and Alford and tackle Johnson.
“I have been impressed by the play of this team thus far,” Cohen said. “Strong showings in scrimmages against John Stark and Kearsarge demonstrated desire, commitment, gridiron prowess and ability.”
The Bears, 4-4 last year, haven’t made the playoffs since 2009. They’re determined to get back there this season, but they know they have to focus on the daily grind in order to achieve their long-term goal.
“We’re using that old analogy of saving money,” said Riberdy, now in his seventh year as the team’s head coach. “It’s like putting money in the bank every time you get a practice under your belt, but eventually, if you keep building up that account, you can spend that money and have some fun with it.”
The Serrano brothers – running backs Christian, a junior, and Andrew, a senior – will once again drive the Winnisquam offense, but Riberdy said he plans on spreading the field and throwing the ball more than he has in recent years. Senior Greg Hunt returns as quarterback, although junior Charlie Taylor is also fighting for the job. Tight/split ends Tim Harmon and Matt McHugh, juniors who started last year, both have the potential to be receiving threats.
The interior of the offensive line returns with junior center Mike Lewis and senior guards Richard Mills and Christian Duquette. Seniors Richie Scacheri, who missed last year with an injury, and Billy Chavanelle will be the tackles.
Duquette, Chavanelle and sophomore Trevor Moran will be in the defensive tackle rotation on Winnisquam’s five-man defensive line, with sophomore Jake Snow at nose guard. Senior Cody Rubel and juniors Tyler Moran and Steven Bass-Wagner will be in the defense end mix. Mills is back as the middle linebacker, Andrew Serrano is back as the right outside backer, and McHugh, who has gained a few pounds of muscle, will move from cornerback to the left outside linebacker spot. Christian Serrano, Hunt, Harmon and junior Joey Correia will make up the secondary.
After going 0-8 last year, the Golden Tornadoes are switching things up on both sides of the ball.
The offense will have a retro feel as Jeff Kaplan, now in his second year as the team’s head coach, is installing the double wing.
“We’re going old-school,” Kaplan said. “It’s a ball control offense, and you need a fullback, and I think I have one.”
That would be senior Lucas Gagne, who has looked good in the preseason and is one of the team’s two captains. There’s competition for the starting quarterback spot between juniors Kenny Torres and Garrett Fleming, who both saw time at the position last year. Kaplan likes his depth at running/wing back with seniors Dylan Royer and Bruce Carey, junior Ryan Grevier and freshman Tom Pellerin, who has been one of the pleasant surprises of the Franklin preseason. Returning guards Pat Kaplan, a junior captain, and Kevin Jeaussame will anchor the line, along with junior tackle Pat Carey and senior tight end Isaac Muniz, a four-year varsity player.
The Tornadoes gave up 42.9 points per game last year using a 5-3, so they’re moving to a 4-3 scheme this season. Kaplan and Joe Caravona return as the starting defensive tackles with Jeaussame and Dylan Scheffer at the ends. Bruce Carey keys the linebacking group, which also includes Muniz and Pellerin. Torres and Grevier will start at the corners with Fleming and Royer at the two safety spots.
“We gained some valuable experience last year,” Kaplan said, “and we should be more competitive this year.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)