Girls' Basketball: Title defenders are also contenders
Last season produced four new state champions in high school girls' basketball. Bedford won its first school title in Division I, and Lebanon ended Souhegan of Amherst's two-year reign in Division II. Bow broke through in Division III, and Groveton, champion in five of the previous six seasons, returned to the Division IV throne.
Will any of those teams successfully defend their title in 2013-14?
Bow began its defense Friday night. Lebanon and Groveton open their seasons this week. Division I play commences next week.
Here's a division-by-division look at what's ahead:
Last season, Bedford dethroned Bishop Guertin of Nashua, 39-38, for the state title. This season, Manchester Central coach Mike Wenners, again sees those as the teams to beat.
"There isn't a clear-cut favorite entering the season, but it starts with defending state champion Bedford," Wenners, entering his 12th season with the Little Green, said. "They have very good talent and depth. Haley Driscoll is a very good player surrounded by many other good players who start and come off the bench."
Wenners said Bishop Guertin of Nashua, led by Jamie Sherburne, and Londonderry, featuring Aliza Simpson, will challenge the Bulldogs for the state title.
Simpson, a senior and Londonderry's all-time assists leader, signed her letter of intent to attend the University of New Hampshire. She'll be in the running for Division I Player of the Year honors this season.
"Simpson is a fantastic guard who can control a game on both ends of the floor," said Wenners. "She's so good, she could have as little as six points in a game with six assists, six rebounds and six steals. She's that good across the board.
"BG just keeps producing one talented class after another," Wenners added. "Sherburne is one of their top players back, and it wouldn't surprise me to see them go deep into the playoffs again."
Alvirne of Hudson, Nashua North, Winnacunnet of Hampton, Pinkerton Academy of Derry and Salem all figure to finish in the top eight.
As for his own team, Wenners said senior Sam Gauthier and sophomore Amanda Gaudreault lead an athletic bunch.
"We don't possess an explosive offense, which means we're going to have to contain teams in the 40s to have a chance to win," he said. "My sleeper pick is Trinity (of Manchester), which should be a playoff team. They return many juniors and sophomores."
There's a changing of the guard at Lebanon this season. Longtime head coach Tim Kehoe has taken a leave of absence for family reasons. Longtime JV coach Robbie Marsh will be the head coach of the defending state champs, who finished an unbeaten season by knocking off Portsmouth, 48-41, for the state title last season.
Lebanon is led by senior forward Heather King, a strong candidate for Division II Player of the Year. Complementing her are senior point guard Samantha McDonald and junior Vanessa Fluery.
Portsmouth, led by longtime head coach Dan Parr, returns three starters: seniors Abby Salvadore, Tighe Loch and Phoebe Collins.
"After that, we have many players who didn't see much playing time last year," Parr said. "We're going to have to progress as the season rolls along."
Oyster River of Durham, Windham, and Coe-Brown Northwood Academy figure to challenge for the state title.
"Hanover, Merrimack Valley, Pelham, Kennett and Goffstown all have good players, too," said Parr. "It's a matter of a team getting hot late in the season. That's what happened to us last year when we started to peak at the right time. This season, you can throw a net over eight to 10 teams, and the team that gets hot at the end can win it all."
Lebanon's Kehoe picked Milford as his "sleeper" team to watch.
Bow is coming off a season capped by a 29-17 victory over White Mountains of Whitefield in the division final. Head coach Bill Vermette noted six players return to his lineup, including seniors Maddie Horner, a forward, and guards Taylor Marston, Ashlie Tucker and Kirsten Bresson. Bow lost its season-opener to Bishop Brady of Concord last year, then rattled off 25 straight wins to complete its title run.
"This is a completely different season," said Vermette. "We're athletic, but we haven't developed a personality yet. We need everyone on our team to contribute. By late January, I'll be able to know what type of team we have this season."
Vermette said he sees more parity in the division this season.
"This is my fourth season at Bow, and there are more teams getting better and stronger, making our division tougher to compete in," he said.
Bishop Brady, Campbell of Litchfield and Hopkinton will be formidable challengers when the playoffs roll around. Campbell has played for the state title in five of the last six seasons, winning once in that span, in 2011. White Mountains also should again contend.
Groveton defeated Colebrook, 60-40, for the 2012-13 title.
"Groveton will always be in the mix," said Ed Lemire, entering his 30th season as head coach at Derryfield School in Manchester. "Basketball is big in that community. The kids work hard, and the coaching is very good. I would look for good things to come from Littleton, as well."
Erika Waterman of Sunapee is the reigning Player of the Year, and she returns for her senior season.
"She's outstanding, and Sunapee will be tough to beat because of her," said Lemire. "She can hit the three-point shot if you play off her and can drive to the basket, as well. Sunapee was in the semifinals last year, and I believe they'll contend this season."
Hinsdale, with senior guards Skylar Bonnette and Allison Scott returning, will be another team to watch. "They've been starters since their freshman season," Lemire said of the Pacer duo. "Allison is the better shooter, and Skylar is a good ball handler."
Derryfield hopes to have Hannah Comeau and Hannah Menakaya healthy this season. Last year, a collarbone injury to Menekaya and an ankle injury to Comeau cost each player seven games.
"If they're both healthy, we will be competitive," Lemire said.