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In new-look alignment, experienced Concord High football team counting on familiarity

Senior lineman Kyle Cushman (72) is one of many returning starters for Concord High this season. In this photo he's tackling a Hollis-Brookline player in last year's season opener.

(John Tully/Monitor Staff)

Senior lineman Kyle Cushman (72) is one of many returning starters for Concord High this season. In this photo he's tackling a Hollis-Brookline player in last year's season opener. (John Tully/Monitor Staff)

Playing for a high school state championship is big in and of itself, but now New Hampshire football players have two titles to shoot for.

The state’s football realignment combines the previous six divisions into three, with each division broken down into four conferences – North, South, East and West – with the top two teams in each battling for a conference championship and the right to advance to the divisional final four.

“I think it’s a great system. The first thing you try to play for is a conference championship,” Concord Coach Eric Brown said. “It’s kind of like playing in the SEC.”

For Brown’s Tide, that means playing in Division I North with longtime rivals from Manchester – Central, Memorial and West – along with newcomer Bedford. This season, the crossover conference will be D-I South, with Pinkerton, Salem, Londonderry, Goffstown and Merrimack.

“We open with Central, that I would consider the favorite (in the conference), Memorial always gives us a go, West has been down lately but they have a new coach and reinterest in the program, Bedford’s numbers are up, they’re a good program. It’s going to be a challenge,” Brown said. “There are traditional rivalries in both conferences, and the new (opponents) are not bad, either. It’s not going to be a cakewalk.”

Concord is in the enviable position of returning nearly its entire team from last year, when the Tide had just five seniors in the program. So along with returning nine starters on both sides of scrimmage, the Tide got bigger and stronger, and also has plenty of depth, giving it the luxury of keeping players rested and fresh.

Offensively, Concord graduated featured back Tolbert Nemo, but returns nearly every other skill position player, starting with quarterback Robert Law, who became the starter four games into last season. Law was a part of 18 touchdowns a year ago, either running (where he averaged 5 yards per carry) or throwing (he threw for just shy of 900 yards). His primary targets are back, led by Seimou Smith (eight TDs, more than 600 yards receiving), whom Brown calls “one of the top, if not the top receiver in the state.” Nick Comeau is back after missing the second half of last season with a knee injury. Both Smith and Comeau are among the Tide’s four captains. Slot receivers will be Jacob Szulc and Leo Sudeih, while Marc Gaudet (three rushing TDs, five passing TDs), who is just coming back from a preseason injury, will see time in the backfield, as well. Walters Ndi takes over at tailback, giving the Tide’s run game a little more power.

They’ll be going to work behind an established front five of Kyle Cushman, Sean Larner, Kyle Corriveau, Wyatt LaBombard and Alex Cohen.

LaBombard is the only two-way starter on the line, joining fellow tackle Dylan Naylor and nose tackle Kris Skinner, along with Matt Campbell rotating in, on a defensive front that averages 248 pounds. Logan Lamoureux (a captain), Will Scharlotte and Brandon Barrett form the middle linebacker rotation, with Gaudet (a captain), Ndi and Dan Lawrence rotating at outside linebacker.

Cornerbacks Diego Hebra and Smith, and safeties Comeau, Shawn Jobin, Devon Ferland and Sudeih form the backfield combinations.

“We’ve got a lot of depth back there,” Brown said. “It doesn’t really matter who’s a starter, they’re all going to play. That’s the nice part, having that depth.”

Smith will handle kickoffs, Comeau punts, and Ndi, Smith and Jobin are in contention for PATs.

“How far we go and how good we’ll be, I don’t know. We’re going to let everything shake out. Like I tell the kids, we’ll let our shoulder pads do the talking for us,” Brown said. “I think we’ll put an exciting team on the field that can run, pass and play some good D.”

DIVISION II

Kearsarge

It’s a year of change and uncertainty for the Kearsarge football team, and plenty still needs to be determined for Coach Zach Matthews and his group as the regular season approaches. Start with the realignment, which put the Cougars, a Division V semifinalist last year, into the new Division II with former Division III and IV teams and has them preparing for a new level of competition.

“There’s no doubt it’s going to be a challenge for us,” Matthews said. “Making the jump up into Division II, there are some opponents we haven’t seen for a while. … Our program’s going to be tested. We’re going to have to prove ourselves, there’s no doubt.”

Kearsarge will respond to those challenges with a roster that had to endure the blow of losing 14 seniors, including 11 starters, and All-State talent in the offensive and defensive backfields. The defensive and offensive lines, anchored by seniors in returners John Barber and D.J. Heiner and new starters Kevin Girard and James Schurer, is a strength, but the rest of the outfit is marked with youth. On offense, that includes a group of skill players led by sophomore running back Riley Antle, junior receiver Elliot Lukaitis and junior quarterback Ryan Stanley, who’ll take the keys to the team’s new pistol offense.

There’s inexperience away from the line on defense as well, where Antle and fellow sophomore Austin Hogancamp will start at linebacker and Lukaitis and Stanley lead a secondary that still has starting roles up for grabs.

“The biggest thing for me is we can’t beat ourselves,” Matthews said. “Penalties, turnovers, missed assignments, those are the things that hurt football teams. Just give ourselves a chance to win in the fourth quarter, and we’ll be all right.”

John Stark

Hopes for a successful season were dashed last year in Weare as the Generals dropped their final five games en route to a 1-8 record. The offseason saw a better-than-average turnout for preseason activities, however, and Coach Jim O’Rourke is feeling confident that the team is going in the right direction.

“This could be the year that (we) turn the corner and become more competitive,” he said. “A very successful off-season saw a record number of players both attending football camp and training in the weight room.”

There are obstacles for the Generals, however. One is their new, brutal conference within Division II, which pits them against Souhegan and Trinity (9-1 and 8-1 in Divisions III and IV, respectively), as well as Milford (7-3 Div. III) and Windham (7-2 Div. IV). Another is a small roster, which will have John Stark scrambling should any injury trouble arise.

The Generals’ best path around these hardships toward competition will be by giving the ball to senior running back Carson Dunn, a first-team All-State player who is a mere 237 yards short of the school’s rushing mark. He’ll be joined in the backfield by juniors Adam King and Terry Zervos, while senior center Kellan Brien (a second-team All-State pick last year) anchors a line protecting a quarterback position that will be manned by either junior Gage Huard or sophomore Phil Thibeault.

On defense, the strength will be the linebacking corps, which features Dunn, Brien, Andrew Hewey and Zervos.

“Defensively, the team is athletic,” he said, “and must get after the ball with team defense, and must produce turnovers.”

Pembroke

Realignment was kind to the Spartans. In landing in Division II’s five-team East conference, Pembroke, a Division III team last year, is joined by three squads that spent last season in Division IV, giving it (on paper, at least) a solid shot at a postseason berth.

“With the new divisions, it will be exciting to see what unfolds,” Coach Brian Gridley said.

The Spartans will be led by Vinny and Dean Dustin, who made noise in the All-State selection process last year. Vinny, a junior, was a second-team pick as a cornerback, and senior Dean was an honorable mention for his play at linebacker and in the backfield as the team’s top rusher. The team also landed a top newcomer in Keenan Abbott, a second-team selection at wide receiver at Merrimack Valley last year, and he’ll catch passes from junior Chris Cushing, who’s returning as the starter under center.

The defense in Pembroke will see Zach Wiggin start alongside Dean Dustin at linebacker, while Shane Gillen and Mike Patnode are returning players on the offensive and defensive lines. Krys Abbott and Troy Wallace will try to make it into the mix in the defensive backfield, as will Mike St. Jacques at offensive tackle and defensive end.

Merrimack Valley

The Pride is eager to put a miserable 0-8 season behind it, and to do so, it’ll rely on a passing offense that has started to take form over the last few seasons. Now, with junior quarterback Ivan Niyomugabo back under center and receivers Ryan Head (a senior and second-team All-State pick), Cole Martin (senior) and Tommy Schneider (junior) to throw to, Coach David Jackson thinks the aerial attack will be among the division’s best.

“(We) should have an excellent passing game,” he said. “Team speed will be a huge plus. We hope to be better on both sides of the ball due to the return of experienced players from last year’s team.”

Indeed, the Pride has a bevy of players returning to their spots, which should help a defense that allowed 41.6 points per game last year. Defensive back Blake Gaboriault, an All-State honorable mention last year, is back in the mix, and he’s joined in the defensive backfield by Colby Weyant. The defensive line is fortified by All-State honorable mention Taylor Blanchette, and also features returning talent in Dylan Johanson, Jacob Davidson and Jon Plante. Buddy Hughes, Tristan McNeel and Billy Thibeault are back to man the linebacking corps.

On offense, Davidson, Gaboriault, McNeel and Weyant form the Pride’s backfield, though former players Tucker Burt and Caleb Tipton, back on the team after attending other schools last year, will be competing for carries as well.

DIVISION III

BISHOP BRADY

As the smallest school in the state with a football team, Bishop Brady (362 students, according to the NHIAA) had a lot to lose with the division consolidation, and the Green Giants might have a hard time matching up this year when they play Pelham (623 students) or Somersworth (573). But considering the other teams in Brady’s conference – Raymond (0-9 in D-VI last year), Epping-Newmarket (1-7 in D-V) and Farmington-Nute (2-7 in D-VI) – one of the D-III East playoff spots seem within reach for the Giants, who were 5-4 last year in D-VI.

Junior quarterback Brendan Johnson returns to direct the Brady offense. Now in his third year as a starter, Johnson “has the confidence and understanding, but he’s got to learn to be aggressive,” said Greg Roberts, who is entering his 11th season as Brady’s head coach. Johnson has shown improved arm strength during the preseason, which should mean more action for 6-foot-5 tight end Nate Daneault, wide receiver Spenser Sloane and slot back Andrew Jousset.

A pair of seniors will fill out the backfield behind Johnson as Matt Tetu returns as the starting tailback and Dalton Morris gets the nod at fullback. The offensive line will have three-year starter Hunter Migneault at center, Duncan O’Reilly and Joe Lagasse at guard, and John Kelly and Matt Fogarty at tackle.

The Giants defense has some athleticism, but is very inexperienced outside of Migneault (end) and Kelly (tackle). Freshmen Moses Murenzi (end) and Peter Dubois (tackle), along with senior Amish Giri (nose tackle), round out the starting defensive line. All four of the linebackers are first-time starters with Nate Raffa and Chris Thurber on the inside and Connor Dougherty and Aidan Plumpton, another freshman, on the outside. Jousset and Sloane are the safeties.

BOW

The Falcons find themselves in what looks like a very competitive conference, D-III South, with Pelham, Campbell and Somersworth. But the Falcons (4-5 last season in D-V) have good depth (46 in the program) and Paul Cohen, now in his 13th season as the team’s head coach, is “pleased by the cohesiveness, dedication and desire exhibited by this team.”

Bow’s depth will be tested immediately by an injury to senior captain Derek Polish, who was projected to be the starting quarterback. Polish should be back soon, but for now junior Sean Stewart will get the nod under center for the opener against Pelham. He will be surrounded by returning starters in tailback Matt Ehrenberg, tight end Travis Reynolds, tackles Tucker Johnson and Billy Knapp, and guards Mike Johnson and Dwight Alford, who are both senior captains. The other starters in the Falcons double-tight end, power offense are center Alec Tellifson, fullback Gavin Lacourciere, slot back Alex Reitze and tight end Tony Roberts.

Alford will also start at inside linebacker with Kyle Milne. Reynolds and Chris Robbins are the outside linebackers, Tellifson will start at one defensive end spot, Tucker Johnson and Teddy Nappen will start at defensive tackle, Ehrenberg is the lone safety, and Reitze and Jason Smick are the starting cornerbacks.

“With the change to three divisions this year, 2013 should be a very different season,” Cohen said. “We had a solid preseason, and will be prepared for the demands of this autumn.”

FRANKLIN

Despite realignment, the Golden Tornadoes will be looking at some familiar Lakes Region foes in their conference, D-III North – Winnisquam, Gilford, Newfound and Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, the only D-III North team that was not in D-VI last year. It’s a similar situation at the top of the Franklin program, where there’s a new coach with a familiar face, Jeff Kaplan.

Kaplan has been an assistant at Franklin since 2009 under Greg Husband, who was fired in April amid some controversy that began after the Tornadoes won the D-VI title last season against Mascoma. Kaplan also has experience as a head coach at Franklin (1996-97), Newfound (2003-04) and Gilford (2005-08).

Eight starters return from last year’s 9-2 championship team, and six of them will be playing on both sides of the ball this fall. Kory Parent will be the focal point of the offense at running back and in the middle of the defense at linebacker. Bruce Carey returns at quarterback, where he’s throwing the ball with confidence this preseason, and will start at strong safety. One of Carey’s prime targets will be Isaias Muniz, who will start at wide receiver and cornerback. Tight end Isaac Muniz will also be a passing target, and he’ll see time at defensive end. Lucas Gagne will be at defensive end and left guard, and Patrick Kaplan, the coach’s son, will start at right guard and defensive tackle.

The two returners who aren’t starting both ways will be saving their energy for the offensive line – left tackle Chaz Carey and center Noah Nadeau. The other offensive starters are fullback Clayton Ford, right tackle Pat Carey and wing back Ryan Grevier, who will also start at linebacker with Parent and Brice Malloch. The rest of the defensive starters are tackle Alex Hildreth, free safety Garrett Fleming, end Dylan Royer and cornerback Max Joyce, the only freshman in the starting lineup.

WINNISQUAM

The Bears have shown offensive cohesion and defensive athleticism during the preseason, and Pat Riberdy, now in his seventh year as the Bears head coach, said his team gained some confidence by holding its own in a scrimmage against Laconia – “It was good for our kids to go up against a bigger school like that.”

The Winnisquam offense will feature the Serrano brothers in the backfield, junior Andrew and sophomore Christian. They’ll be split behind quarterback Greg Hunt, who will be looking to throw to wideout Matt McHugh, tight end Kyle Sawicki and wing back Cody Rubel. The offensive line has some talent and experience in right tackle Dakota Van Tassel, left tackle Pat Boyle and left guard Jacob Gove, all returning starters from last year’s team that went 5-4 in D-VI. Mike Lewis (center) and Richard Mills (right guard) round out the o-line.

Van Tassel (tackle), Boyle (tackle) and Gove (end) will also be on the front lines of the Bears defense, which will employ an aggressive style to take advantage of the team’s overall speed and quickness.

“We’ve looked good against the run,” Riberdy said, “we had a few problems with the pass, but nothing that can’t be fixed.”

The rest of the defense features Mills, Rubel and Andrew Serrano at linebacker, Brandon LeClair at safety, Hunt and Christian Serrano at the corners, Clark Roberts at defensive end and Cameron Chatfield at noseguard.

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Division I North – Concord, Manchester West, Manchester Central, Manchester Memorial, Bedford South – Pinkerton, Salem, Londonderry, Goffstown, Merrimack East – Exeter, Winnacunnet, Dover, Spaulding, Timberlane West – Keene, Nashua North, Nashua South, Bishop Guertin, Alvirne Division II North – Kennett, Hanover, Plymouth, Laconia, Lebanon South – Milford, John Stark, Windham, Souhegan, Trinity East – Portsmouth, Pembroke, MV, Kingswood, St. … 0

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