The search for the favorite in Division I high school football this season begins in Concord, where several key ingredients return from a team that went 12-0 and won the 2013 Division I title.
Quarterback Robbie Law, running back Leo Sudieh, receiver Jacob Szulc and two-way linemen Kris Skinner and Wyatt LaBombard are among the top players from a year ago who are still on the Crimson Tide roster.
Law set the school record for passing yards in a season last year (1,623), when Concord set the program’s record for points scored in a season (509).
Concord was a unanimous No. 1 selection in the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll.
“I’d say Concord is the team to beat,” Salem coach Rob Pike said. “They haven’t lost in a long time and they have a lot of guys back and they’re well coached, but it’s wide open right now. There will be a team hanging around the playoff chase nobody is talking about now.”
After Concord, it’s the usual cast of characters: Pinkerton Academy of Derry, Exeter and Nashua South. Pinkerton, which lost to Concord in last year’s championship game, may be a more well-rounded team that it was a year ago, when the Astros relied heavily on running Manny Latimore and linebacker Matt Madden.
Running back T.J. Urbanik, quarterback Jack Hanaway and lineman Hayden Sturdevant are some of the players expected to lead this year’s Pinkerton team.
“Our young players have stepped up,” Pinkerton coach Brian O’Reilly said. “We’re going to be OK. Jack (Hanaway) is back at quarterback, our receivers are back, our line is bigger than ever. Defensively we should be in good shape. We return two of our three linebackers, and they’re both our captains, and three veterans return in the secondary.”
Nashua South lost quarterback Trevor Knight (now playing at the University of New Hampshire), but has nine players on each side of the ball with significant experience. Exeter and Bedford, another championship contender, each had about 140 players turn out for football this season.
“I’d say Concord is the favorite, and then I’d say Pinkerton, Exeter and Bedford — just because of their numbers,” Nashua South coach Scott Knight said. “Numbers doesn’t always mean you’re good, but you have a pretty darned good chance. There’s always Central because it’s a big school, a lot of kids. You know there are some good athletes there.”
Like any healthy economy, there’s also a strong middle class. That group includes Bishop Guertin of Nashua, Keene, Londonderry, Nashua North, Portsmouth, Spaulding of Rochester, Winnacunnet of Hampton, Goffstown and Central.
Portsmouth made the jump to Division I this season after six consecutive playoff appearances in Division II and Division III. Keene, Londonderry, Spaulding and Central were also playoff teams last season, and appear to have enough talent to get back to the postseason this year.
Alvirne, Dover, Manchester Memorial, Merrimack, Salem and Timberlane of Plaistow are among the programs that failed to make the playoffs last year and are looking for better results in 2014.
“I think the division is going to be good,” Merrimack coach Dante Laurendi said. “It’s a physical division up and down. In Division I, if you can just survive the punches, anybody can knock off anybody. I don’t think it’s a top-heavy division. You have to fight all the way through.”