Head coach Craig Kozens runs the Laconia High School Sachems football team through their paces during practice back in March. The school, currently in Division II, will be moved to Division III next year, with four divisions total at that time. (Alan MacRae/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
High school football divisions going from 3 to 4 next year, Laconia in Div. III
By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — When Laconia High School squared off against Gilford-Belmont in its season finale, both teams were in Division II football.
Laconia won the game 53-12 to even its record at 4-4 and Gilford-Belmont dropped to 1-7. The only wins the Golden Eagles have had over the last two years have been over Pembroke, which only recently established a high school football program, but by virtue of its enrollment of 840 students has been placed in Division II.
Next year, Gilford-Belmont, with a combined enrollment of 938 (510 in Gilford, 428 in Belmont) will remain in Division II, while Laconia, with an enrollment of 590, will be moved into Division III.
The alignments are based on enrollment numbers for each school, studied on a two-year cycle by the NHIAA’s various committees. Previously organized into three divisions, the NHIAA will now divide schools into four divisions. The divisions are now set through the 2019-20 school year and have at least temporarily ended some long-running rivalries such as Laconia and Plymouth. Plymouth, 686 students, remains in Division II, as do Kennett (819), Kingswood (814), Hanover (702), John Stark (700), all teams that Laconia played this season.
Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough remains in Division III and will likely play Laconia next year, while Franklin, Winnisquam Regional and Newfound Regional will drop from Division III to Division IV.
Laconia High School football coach and athletic director Craig Kozens, who was a member of the committee which recommended the change, said that move has its good points and bad points for the Sachems. “Laconia is placed enrollment wise in a division that it matches up in. Our longest rival in school history, Somersworth, will be reunited. On the down side, we will not play Plymouth or Kennett in this two-year cycle.
“With only 35 players, it was tough playing against schools with 70-80 kids on the sideline the past few cycles,” said Kozens.
It is New Hampshire’s fourth realignment in the last 21 years, and the first since moving to three divisions from six in 2013. NHIAA football has not had four divisions since 2003.
Division I now consists of schools with 900 students or more, a group of 20 schools including Exeter (1,705 students), Londonderry (1,496) and Pinkerton Academy (3,449), which has the state’s largest enrollment. D-II will have 18 schools with enrollments of 641 to 899 students, D-III will have 12 schools with enrollments between 451 and 640 students, and D-IV will be made up of eight schools with fewer than 450 students.
Petitions to move up or down already have been approved. Newport (346), Somersworth (438) and Trinity (314) all have moved up to D-III. Fall Mountain (506), will move down to D-IV. St. Thomas Aquinas (432) and Alvirne (1,200) will play in D-II, and Bishop Guertin (789) moves up to D-I.
Division III schools are Hillsboro Deering-Hopkinton, Lebanon, Stevens, Epping-Newmarket, Laconia, Kearsarge, Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, Monadnock, Campbell, Somersworth, Newport and Trinity.
Division IV schools now include Fall Mountain, Winnisquam, Farmington-Nute, Raymond, Newfound, Mascoma, Bishop Brady and Franklin.
Franklin High School Athletic Director Dan Sylvester praised the change. “It's definitely a good move and the correct move to go with four divisions, especially after the disparity in scores this year in Division III. This will allow the smallest schools with football programs in the state to compete with each other and have something for the players to look forward to each weekend. Franklin is now the smallest school in the state enrollment wise that has a football program, so we are definitely in agreement with the realignment.”
Peter Cofran, athletic director at Newfound Regional High School, said that he also likes the change.
“It is a 12-person committee and there are three of us from this area, Craig Kozens of Laconia and Chris Sanborn of Plymouth and myself. In my opinion, it was for competitive balance and to help the smaller-enrollment schools be able to continue to offer football. Many of the Division IV teams have roughly 30 players and can't be competitive with the Division III schools.”
Jon Francis, head football coach at Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, has reservations about the change, noting that it makes Division III much more difficult for the Lakers to compete.
The Lakers made it to the Division III championship games in 2015 and 2016 and finished 4-4 this season and lost to undefeated Campbell in the first round of the playoffs last weekend. Campbell had beaten the Lakers 42-0 in the regular season and scored lopsided wins over teams like Bishop Brady 81-9 and Franklin 63-0.
“We should have been in Division IV. The four teams that we beat this year, Fall Mountain, Mascoma, Kearsarge and Newfound all moved into Division IV. For some games we only dressed 23 players and we had to cancel half of our junior varsity games because we didn’t have enough players. It’s tough to compete against teams that have 40 players on the sidelines and seven or eight coaches," said Francis.
“If we had 30 to 50 kids, we’d have a fair shot. But the state doesn’t seem to recognize what small-town football is and how much of a roller coaster ride it can be,” said Francis.
He has been with Inter-Lakes since the program started and said that after the cooperative team was formed with Moultonborough the program got an influx of 12 to 14 players a year from that town. That number has now dropped to four.
“It was a great move to start with and we were very successful. But sustaining that is another thing,” said Francis.
The combined student population of the two schools is 517, with 313 from Inter-Lakes and 184 from Moultonborough, 67 students above the 450 threshold, which would put it in Division IV.
He said that instead of just student population numbers, the NHIAA should consider “the totality of the circumstances” when assigning schools to different divisions.
Rick Acquilano, athletic director at Gilford High School, agreed that the NHIAA might want to take a look at how it handles cooperative programs when it assigns teams to different divisions.
He noted that the Berlin-Gorham hockey team has one player from Gorham and that the Hillsboro-Deering/Hopkinton football team has one player from Hopkinton, but that in both cases the teams are placed in divisions based on the total number of students from both districts without considering the participation rate from the second school.
“We should have a conversation about this,” said Acquilano, who is confident that the NHIAA will develop a process that takes into account the best interest of the students when it comes to participation in high school sports.