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September 02. 2014 10:31PM

NHIAA Div. II Football Preview: Title road still runs through Plymouth

Division II Football Scoop

What's new: Manchester West, a Division I program last season, dropped to Division II East. West replaced Portsmouth, which moved up to Division I. Pelham moved up to Division II from Division III and was placed in Division II South. John Stark moved from Division II South to Division II West, Kearsarge moved from Division II North to Division II West and John Stark shifted from Division II South to Division II West. In addition, the Division II championship game will be played Nov. 22 at UNH's Cowell Stadium (2:30 p.m.). All three NHIAA title games will be held at UNH that day.

East: Kingswood, Manchester West, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke and St. Thomas.

North: Hanover, Kearsarge, Kennett, Laconia, Lebanon and Plymouth.

South: Milford, Pelham, Souhegan, Trinity and Windham.

West: ConVal, Hollis/Brookline, John Stark, Monadnock and Sanborn.

Players to watch: Mitchell Bailey Sr. OL/DL (Laconia); Saikou Bah Jr. RB (Trinity); Ryan Bennett Jr. RB (St. Thomas); Evan Bolognani Jr.OL/DE (Plymouth); Jack Cavallaro Sr. TE (Hanover); Jacob Cameron Sr. OL (Kennett); Kyle Chiasson Jr. HB/DB (Laconia); Nick Graziano Sr. DB/WR (Kennett); Kurtis Jolicoeur Sr. LB (Windham); Trevor Martin Jr. QB/WR (St. Thomas); Brendan McInnis Sr. QB/DB (Windham); Liam Morris Sr. DE (Monadnock); Jason Murray Jr. OT (Plymouth); Ivan Niyomugabo Sr. QB/DB (Merrimack Valley); Joey Porter Sr. RB (Hanover); Nick Sherwood Sr. DE (Kennett).

Change at the top: Paul Landau (ConVal), Chris Lones (Hollis/Brookline), Vaughan Beckwith (Kennett), Jim Coll (Merrimack Valley), Ray Connolly (Pembroke) and Chris Sanborn (Plymouth).

Circle this date: When Plymouth travels to Conway to face Kennett on Sept. 19 it will be a game that features two new coaches as well as two of the top programs in Division II. The winner of that contest will have cleared a huge hurdle in its attempt to secure home-field advantage for the Division II North playoffs.

Trending: Plymouth will be trying to advance to the championship game in its division for the sixth time in the last seven years. The Bobcats have won four state championships during that span.

The Plymouth Regional High School football team has a new head coach this season. Chris Sanborn has replaced Chuck Lenahan, who retired after the 2013 season with a 356-70-1 record in 43 seasons as Plymouth’s head coach.

What hasn’t changed are the expectations in Plymouth. The Bobcats, who have won four championships in the last six years, still have targets on their backs.

Sanborn is a former Plymouth player who spent 15 seasons on Lenahan’s staff. He’ll have to fill the voids left by tight end/defensive end Kyle Reisert and running back/linebacker Jared Kuehl — both of whom are now playing at the University of New Hampshire — but will build around offensive lineman/defensive end Evan Bolognani, offensive tackle Jason Murray and defensive back Justin Robinson.

“I’ve been hearing about how tough it will be for Plymouth to replace the kids who graduated for years,” Windham coach Bill Raycraft said. “Every year they just reload.”

Kennett of Conway, St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover and Windham are among the teams that could unseat Plymouth.

Kennett is grouped with Plymouth in Division II North, a conference that may be the deepest in the division. The Eagles’ returnees include offensive lineman Jacob Cameron, defensive end Nick Sherwood, linebacker/running back Nate Arnold and defensive back/wide receiver Nick Graziano, all of whom were all-conference selections a year ago.

Junior Will Pollard also returns for his third season as the team’s starting quarterback.

One person who didn’t return to Kennett is former head coach Mike Holderman, who took a head coaching job at the high school level in North Carolina. Vaughan Beckwith, an assistant on the Kennett staff last season, was hired as Kennett’s interim head coach this season.

“It’s still Plymouth until someone knocks them off, but I think Kennett’s loaded,” Lebanon coach Chris Childs said. “I think there’s a good chance you’ll see Kennett as a finalist. We’re in such a tough (conference). We’ll have to knock off one of the big dogs to make the playoffs.”

St. Thomas returns 18 starters, including the entire defensive line from last season. The Saints are so deep that quarterback Trevor Martin will also be used at wide receiver this season, with Steven Hedberg moving under center.

“We’re sitting pretty good right now in terms of experience,” St. Thomas coach Eric Cumba said. “We have a lot of kids who have played a lot of football. Athletically, this could be the best team we’ve had in four years. Competitively, it’s hard to gauge this team against some of the other good teams we’ve had in the last four years because we were in a different division then.”

Merrimack Valley of Penacook may provide St. Thomas with its stiffest competition in Division II East. Merrimack Valley quarterback Ivan Niyomugabo has received scholarship offers from St. Anselm and the University of New Hampshire, and could be the top offensive player in the state.

Windham returns 19 starters from a team that finished first in Division II South a year ago. Those back include quarterback Brendan McInnis, running back/defensive back Kellin Bail and fullback/linebacker Kurtis Jolicoeur.

“We have the bulk of our guys back,” Raycraft said. “This is definitely the most athletic and fastest team that we’ve had. We’re not going to be biggest team from week to week, but our speed should make up for it.”

Milford is another team with playoff potential from Division II South. Milford’s strength will be in its offensive and defensive lines.

“There are a lot of linemen, but we had to replace our entire offensive backfield,” Milford coach Keith Jones said.

Division II West may be the most wide-open of the four conferences. Sanborn of Kingston and Monadnock of Swanzey were the playoff representatives from this conference a year ago, but John Stark of Weare, ConVal of Peterborough and Hollis/Brookline may all be stronger this season than they were a year ago.

“Windham is probably returning the best group,” Jones said. “But someone still has to dethrone Plymouth.”

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