LACONIA SUN LOCAL SPORTS UPDATE
Hard to believe but the football season is upon us as our local schools have opened their doors for the 2018 school year. There will be new faces, new opponents and new challenges ahead for each. First the NHIAA during the off season created a new division and realigned things to better balance the competition. The still based placement on enrollment but did allow for teams to petition down or up in some cases to get that competitive balance they desire. One of the problems with that is the Gilford Belmont Golden Eagles who’s combined enrollment makes them one of the largest schools in Division III. However, over the last 3 seasons the competitiveness within that division for that team has been lacking with lopsided scores and 1 or 2 win seasons. The Laconia Sachems on the other had have been competitive in Division II with some highlight games mixed in with some head scratching losses and .500 seasons over the past 5 or 6. Laconia will move down to Division III and see some familiar faces in Kearsarge (who’s combined with Mount Royal Academy) and Monadnock who have moved down as well. Lebanon made the move as well but are not on the Sachems schedule outside of a scrimmage last night. The only time they will see the Red Raiders is in the playoffs. Newfound, Winnisquam and Franklin have made the move down to Division IV and should find a more equal level of competitiveness than in recent years. Another odd man out is Inter-Lakes as they will remain in DIII but their challenge just got tougher with some of the previous Division II teams dropping down and some easier teams dropping out.
The NHIAA also compressed the start of the season and made changes to the way the pre-season works and that has frustrated a lot of the coaches who have to scramble and find ways to get prepared with a week short and limited practice time and changed techniques. We’ll take it team by team in the next couple of columns for our local teams and make some predictions sure to go wrong! This Saturday we will take Gilford-Belmont, Winnisquam and Laconia.
Gilford-Belmont: Coming off another disappointing season the Golden Eagles are hoping for a solid season according to Coach Josh Marzahl. “Every day we come in and focus on the little things. Winning small things like in a game to win a one on one battle and building on that. Winning a possession, winning a quarter and hopefully that turns into bigger things like winning a half and winning games.” Josh has been around the program for 5 years now and is entering his 3rd as head coach. “I was the JV coach for 2 years so a lot of these kids coming up now that are juniors and seniors I had back then. I’m excited for them and our team this year.” It will be a challenge as the Eagles unexpectedly had to replace their starting quarterback as Greg Madore chose not to come back. “Our quarterback from last year decided to focus on Basketball and that’s OK. He’s a great athlete and really good basketball player. So this year we turn to Alex Cheek who saw some time last year under center. He’s had a good athlete who is turning into a good leader.” The loss of Madore under center, while not unexpected, will provide an opening for Cheek and others to step up. They will have experience and some size on the offensive and defensive line and some returning skill players. The schedule this year is daunting with defending champion Plymouth, runner-up Bow and perennial powerhouse Kennett and Hanover on the schedule. They will also host John Stark and college prospect Parker McQuarie in the season Finale. They do open up against Pembroke and Merrimack Valley who they matched up against better last year. They also have Sanborn and Kingswood on the schedule so a successful season is within reach. Defined success for Marzahl? “Being more competitive and improving week to week. We have not set goals with regards to wins. If we win the little things the bigger things take care of themselves.” When we spoke to Paul Landau, Belmont’s new athletic director, last week and he was optimistic about the team. “They haven’t seen a lot of success and they are in a really tough division. The program is a work in progress But Josh has done a nice job with those kids.” While I don’t see a playoff run in the cards for the Eagles this year I can see a 3-5 or 4-4 record which would be a huge improvement.
Laconia: The Sachems are coming off another 4-4 season and one that saw Big Red sitting at home for the playoffs again last year. When we first spoke to coach Craig Kozens he was upbeat and a bit more animated because as he put it “It’s football season!.” The goal this year for Kozens? “Playoffs. We want to make the playoffs and see what happens.” For a coach that is as intense as him, sitting during playoff time does not sit well with him. Dropping down to Division III this year might get him and the Sachems to that goal but nothing is assured. “We’ll see some teams we are familiar with (Kearsarge and Monadnock) and some teams we have not faced in a while in Somersworth and some we’ve never seen before. Nothing is handed to you and you have to work for everything you get.” Dropping down a division does not ensure any success as many might think and the challenge of making the playoffs just got a bit tougher. Backup quarterback and air apparent to Riley Roy, Ryan Dee is out with a back injury suffered during the baseball season and re-aggravated over the summer. The Junior signal caller is likely out until mid-season and maybe done for the entire campaign according to Kozens. “It’s an injury in an area you don’t take chances with. He’s still with the team, on the sidelines working with the other quarterbacks. He’s watching the plays we install and how they are run. That’s all he can do right now until it heals.” Taking the helm is Jack Ancora who Kozens is encouraged about. “He’s looking better and better each day”. Not sure of his arm but he might not need it with Jake Steele in the backfield. Jake returns at tailback and should see the bulk of the touches this year. We’ve seen him run a lot from the slot with an inside trap play in the last couple of years and once he gets outside he’s trouble for defenses. This year he’ll take it from the tail and look to exploit his speed and agility. Don’t look for a big arial show out of the sachems this year. Kozens mentioned his line and backers on defense as a huge asset this year. “We’re big up front on both sides and we have some depth. On defense out linebackers are fast and hard hitters.” He mentioned Zack Whitney in particular. “He was hurt his first year and didn’t play. This year he didn’t miss a day in the weight room. He’s ready to go and we’ll need him to have a big year.” The numbers have exploded according to Kozens and it was a surprise. “We’re in the mid 50’s this year which is a huge jump from last year when we had numbers in the mid 30’s.” A lot of first time kids and young freshman have come out.” Could the jump in numbers be reflective of the drop in division and a perception of a more competitive schedule? “Could be. But I’ve been back teaching a couple of classes and been able to talk to some guys about the program too.” They should have a lot of depth at some positions but this week has been a challenge with some kids going down with minor injuries. “We’re struggling getting positions. Moving a lot of guys around but we should have a few back for opening day.” The struggles as mentioned earlier extend to the NHIAA changes. “Everyone is dealing with it. I’ve heard from other coaches about how they are dealing with the new rules and policies. We are all creatures of habit and this is a big change. I understand why they (NHIAA) are doing what they are doing but it still makes things difficult.” While everyone is dealing with the changes the task remains the same. “We’re focused on getting ready for the scrimmage against Lebanon and then the opening game against Hillsborough-Deering. We’ve never seen them before so it’s going to be tough scouting them and prepare.” As far as their schedule goes it’s solid. You take the good with the bad. The one glaring missing team is Plymouth. That rivalry is over for at least the next 2 years which is disappointing. Also Gilford-Belmont is off the schedule. But the season concludes with a trip to Inter-Lakes and rivalry created. Also tough trips to Monadnock and Somersworth will prove to be solid tests. Perennial DIII playoff teams, Newport, Stevens and Campbell will also be tough. While I can see a 7 win season my expectations are a bit more tempered with 5 wins. The quarterback position is a question mark and a key injury to one or two players might derail the season. The numbers and depth are great and they should be able to grind other teams down with their size. I would love nothing more than to see the Sachems back in the playoffs. All the games can be heard on 107.3FM WEMJ again this year with Eric Nelson and myself starting next Friday night under the lights at Fitzgerald field. It should be a great ride this year!
Winnisquam: Last year was a down year for the Bears going 2-6 Division III and missing the playoffs. They were a young team with a lot of holes to fill with limited numbers. How does coach Pat Riberdy see the team now? “This year we are young once again with approximately 19 kids sophomore or under. We are expecting 7 seniors and 1 junior.” Good news for Winnisquam is that they have moved into Division IV and should compete for a playoff spot with teams of similar numbers and talent. “Returning starters are Caden Remillard, Xoren Powell, Kobe Briand, Cameron Roberts, Angelo Glover, Anthony Montalto, Gunner Horman, Garret Mango, Phillip Nichols, Brandon Marceau , Evan Judkins.” Phil Nichols has shown early on that he is a multi-sport athlete with the leadership ability of a more seasoned athlete. Gunner Horman also returns after an injury sidelined him last year. That injury especially proved to be too much to overcome as the Bears had multiple moves to fill the vacancy. In the newly formed Division IV their schedule is favorable with a home finale against cross town rival Franklin on October 27th. It’s a division with only 8 teams so they will face each one in a 7 game schedule. Top team on their schedule will be Bishop Brady and they have to travel to Concord for that game. Knowing what I know about the program and Riberdy’s approach, the Bears should make the playoffs with 5 wins and contend for the state title! No pressure Pat!
Remember I did say these were predictions sure to go wrong! I hope all our teams do well as we are represented in three divisions this year so we could see a lot of playoff action! Coming next week the High School Fall season begins as all the sports are in action. We will also preview the remaining Football teams in the Lakes Region.
Keith Murray can be heard doing local sports updates on WEEI Lakes Region, 101.5FM