The Plymouth Regional, Portsmouth and Trinity of Manchester football programs have at least a couple of things in common: All three return talented, experienced quarterbacks, and all three form the upper crust in Division II this season.
"I would agree with that," first-year Portsmouth coach Brian Pafford said. "I'd say Plymouth is the team to beat. It's Plymouth, Trinity, and then people are talking about us."
Senior quarterback Collin Sullivan led Plymouth to an undefeated season and the Division IV championship last season, before realignment shrunk NHIAA football from six divisions to three. Plymouth beat a Trinity team led by quarterback Carmen Giampetruzzi in the title game. Like Sullivan, Giampetruzzi is entering his senior year.
Then there's Portsmouth QB Donovan Phanor, who has also played running back and split end for the Clippers. Phanor helped Portsmouth beat Goffstown in last year's Division III championship game.
"I wouldn't see why anyone wouldn't call those three the favorites," Milford coach Keith Jones said. "I would say that's the case. Plymouth is loaded, from what I heard."
Plymouth's strength may be on the defensive side of the ball, where three first-team all-state players return: defensive end Kyle Reisert, linebacker John Thomas and linebacker Jared Kuehl.
The Bobcats will try to hand Chuck Lenahan a title in his final season as Plymouth's head coach.
"Give me a break," Lenahan said. "We lost 16 seniors. We're just hoping to compete for our conference playoffs. We have good numbers, but we have a lot of work to do."
Trinity doesn't have the size up front that it's had in recent years, but the Pioneers aren't short on skill players. In addition to Giampetruzzi, Trinity will be counting on tight end Tristan Theroux and running back Austin Chambers.
"Depth at the skill positions would probably be our strongest thing," Trinity coach Steve Burns said. "We graduated four of five starters on the offensive line, so there's some transition there.
"We have our work cut out for us because we have six of the eight playoff teams from Division III and Division IV (last year) on our schedule. You couldn't load up our schedule more than that."
Portsmouth, which has reached the championship game in its division six of the last seven years, returned 13 starters from last season's championship team. Portsmouth will run a no-huddle, fast-paced offense that may be the most explosive unit in the division.
Phanor's targets include split end Jake Becker — a first-team all-state selection at linebacker last season — and split end Jack Young. Phanor and fullback Mike Toar will be the team's top running threats.
"Last year with (Ricky) Holt and (Kurtis) Leonard, our strength was up front," Pafford said. "This year skill positions are our definite strength. We have very good speed."
Programs like Windham, Milford, Souhegan of Amherst, Kearsarge of North Sutton, Hanover, Hollis/Brookline, Laconia and Lebanon give Division II plenty of depth. If there's a sleeper team, it may be Monadnock of Swanzey, which won last year's Division V championship. Monadnock is a Division III school by enrollment, but was placed in Division II.
The Huskies have experience in the offensive backfield, and added a couple of impact transfers in linebacker/tight end Clinton Brock and linebacker/tight end Mischa Hoffman.
"I don't feel like we were gutted," Monadnock coach Linwood Patnode said. "We have some talent coming back. I'm not going to underplay our team.
"The schedule is what it is. We don't have it in our heads that we're a Division III school playing in Division II."