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H.S. Soccer: Some clear favorites, but watch for upsets

By JOE DUBALL
New Hampshire Union Leader

October 23. 2017 9:23PM

Bedford's Zachary Verow battles Londonderry's Will Houghton at Londonderry High School earlier this month. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Here we go. We’ve reached that time of year in NHIAA soccer that teams have been working for since the end of August: tournament time.

Some boys’ and girls’ clubs throughout the state have been in stride since game No. 1 to position themselves for what they hope will be two weeks of continued success while other clubs have scratched and clawed their way into the postseason. Regardless, hope will spring eternal for all as tournaments open this week. Here’s what to expect from around the state:

Boys’ tournaments

Division I: Nobody can be counted out. And when I say nobody, I really mean it. Nine teams won at least 11 games during the regular season, leaving this 13-team tournament filled with potential for special games and outcomes.

Bedford will have the top seed and a good chance at reaching the final regardless of the parity. The Bulldogs lost twice during the regular season and managed to string together a league-best 12-game winning streak between losses. Charley Speaker and Mark Keiffer will have to continue hitting on all cylinders up front as they have all season for Bedford to finally exorcise its playoff demons. The Bulldogs earned the top seed in 2016 and 2015 with 14-1-1 records in each season, but they bowed out in the quarterfinals and semifinals in those seasons.

No. 2 Londonderry and No. 3 Salem join Bedford as clubs that earned first-round byes. Despite the exemptions, the stacked brackets mean all three teams are in for a fight in the quarterfinals. Bedford will either get No. 9 Manchester Central, which beat them in the season opener, or a Nashua South club that is arguably the most improved team from last season to now. Londonderry is going to get one of last year’s semifinalists as Concord and Timberlane do battle for the right to play the Lancers. Salem’s test will come from one of last year’s finalists as it plays the winner of the Exeter-Manchester Memorial match.

It’s not out of the question that a middle-seeded team comes out of this with a title. Defending champion Exeter (No. 6), Concord (No. 7) and Central (No. 9) are prime candidates to rise up.

Fourth-seeded Pinkerton of Derry and fifth-seeded Hanover will have to go through each other for a title, but those teams have what it takes to go all the way. Pinkerton’s Kerry Boles and Hanover’s Rob Grabill each rode the wave with young clubs this season, but the patience is paying off for the coaches and players as each club brings a 10-game winning streak into the postseason.

Division II: This bracket doesn’t have the same widespread competition as D-I, but there’s certainly still intrigue. No. 1 Windham lost once during the season while allowing just five goals, which was good enough to earn the the Jaguars the league’s only first-round bye. That kind of defensive prowess goes a long way in low-scoring playoff affairs but the Jags have the offense to back up their defense, making them the easy favorite to go all the way.

Standing in the way is No. 2. Pembroke, which mirrors Windham’s balanced mold. Pembroke did not meet Windham during the regular season and would only do so in the title game.

No. 3 Bow, No. 4 Hollis/Brookline, No. 6. John Stark of Weare and No. 7 Oyster River of Durham are all teams that could find their way to the final given the regular-season success each had. There’s no question each group has the talent and coaching to reel off four wins, but the ability to succeed in a playoff atmosphere needs to come to the forefront for each.

If I’m picking a team outside of the top-two, though, I’m going with No. 5 Lebanon. Rob Johnstone’s Raiders were a couple penalty kicks short of a title last season. Luke Sandmann, Owen Johnstone and Logan Falzarano are all back from that team and pacing the attack. The Raiders are on Windham’s side of the bracket and would face them in the semifinals, but Lebanon beat Windham in last year’s semifinals.

Divison III: Derryfield of Manchester is the team of destiny here. The Cougars went undefeated (14-0) during the regular season and faced few hurdles along the way.

Games will be tighter for the Cougars but it’s nothing Jeff Cousineau is likely sweating. Nate Kelsey and Oliver Simon haven’t shied away from showing their playmaking abilities for the Cougars out of the midfield during the regular season, and the playoffs are only expected to prompt the duo to shine brighter. Derryfield’s competition on its side of the bracket includes Raymond, Campbell of Litchfield and Belmont.

While Derryfield is the odds-on favorite to take up one title-game slot, its potential opponent is a mystery. No. 2 Hopkinton and No. 3 Gilford, who could meet in the semifinals, are easy choices to complete the championship pairing. The two clubs have jostled for No. 2 billing in contrasting fashion, as Hopkinton has lit up the scoreboard while Gilford has thrived on limiting its opponents. Defending champion Stevens of Claremont, seeded sixth this year, is also on this side of the bracket and though it doesn’t carry the firepower of a year ago, the Cardinals are still a team to be wary of.

Division IV: The Derryfield boys were one of two NHIAA soccer teams, boys or girls, to go undefeated in the regular season. The other was Portsmouth Christian Academy of Dover.

The Eagles have amassed 121 goals on the way to 16-0. They’ve scored at least five goals in 12 of those games and posted double-digit scoring outputs in five contests. Fiston Kapongo, AJ Chase and Samy Tshileu are a few names to watch for PCA as the Eagles try to improve on last year’s D-IV semifinals appearance.

Newmarket and Pittsfield gave PCA its toughest games this season at 1-0 and 3-2, respectively. Those clubs are on the other side of the bracket but play each other in the opening round.

Lisbon is the No. 2 seed and had its hardest games of the season over its last seven contests where it went 6-1. Being battle tested like that before the playoffs might pay dividends for Lisbon.

Girls’ tournaments

Division I: It’s a lot of the same in D-I this year as the perennial contenders earned top seeding again.

The obvious surprise has been top-seeded Manchester Central. Little Green coach Peter Lally continually spoke of the youth of this team and how the expectations had to be tempered. He went as far as saying his team would likely top out as a middle-of-the-pack team by season’s end. Lally’s players apparently had other plans as they’ve embarked on a 15-game winning streak since dropping their opener 2-1 to Bedford. A lack of playoff experience is cause for concern with the Little Green, but the widespread production throughout the season may negate those worries.

Central gets one of four first-round byes with the other three going to Exeter, Bedford and Winnacunnet of Hampton. A 1-0 loss to Central was all that kept Exeter from earning the top seed. Seeding might not matter for the Blue Hawks, though, given the extensive postseason resume Blue Hawks coach Meghan Young carries in. The same can be said for Michelle Winning’s Bedford girls, who have scored when they need to while registering baffling defensive efforts. Winnacunnet of Hampton is the newcomer of the group as the Warriors carried middling teams the last few seasons before going 13-2-1 this season.

Alvirne and Pinkerton meet in the first round but the winner of that game has a chance to make noise after both gave top teams fits this season. Londonderry is another club to monitor given the Lancers’ ability to explode offensively.

Division II: This tournament mirrors that of the D-I boys as it’s pretty much anyone’s title to win with 10 teams with 10 wins in the 16-team field.

As has been the case over recent seasons in whichever division it’s played, Bow has the upper hand. The top-seeded Falcons have finally had their offense catch up to their defense as they’ve outscored opponents 36-1 over their last six games.

Souhegan, Milford, Hanover and Portsmouth round out the top five seeds in that order behind Bow. Portsmouth served Bow its only loss of the season, albeit a 1-0 loss, but the Clippers appear poised to make noise with a veteran crew. Souhegan and Milford have been No. 2 and 2A in the league all season despite using different methods to pull out games. The Marauders’ defensive-minded play suggests they’ll be a hard out in all of this as well.

Defending champion John Stark is the wild card as an eighth seed. The Generals were No. 3 last year when they won and there is a good amount of presence remaining from that team, including All-American midfielder Cara Easter.

Division III: It’s hard to believe that a team with 12 freshmen is looking at the best odds of a championship, but here is Raymond after a 15-1 regular season. The No. 1 Rams are playing with a purpose, as they play in honor of the late Jenni Plender, who passed away last fall after a battle with lung cancer. Plender would’ve been one of the freshmen pacing the Rams this season.

On the field, the Rams have pushed their most recent win streak to 10 games, including a 2-0 win in their season finale against Hopkinton. The Hawks were the only team to beat the Rams this season. Raymond was a D-III finalist two years ago before losing in the quarterfinals last season.

Second-seeded Fall Mountain of Langdon won last year’s title and stands the best chance to challenge Raymond from the other side of the bracket. Izzy Lord and Maddie Parrott are two key players back for the Wildcats, who have not had an easy title defense through personnel issues along with peaks and valleys in their play. Bishop Brady of Concord, which improved by nine wins from a year ago, will challenge the Fall Mountain side of the bracket.

Division IV: I’ve noted a couple of times this year that Sunapee is not the same team it’s been in previous years given its roster overhaul. That doesn’t mean Myles Cooney’s Lakers can’t defend their title and they’ve given little reason to doubt that.

Maddy Austin’s offensive feats are enough to give No. 1 Sunapee the distinction of favorite but the way the Lakers have adjusted to new roles and players has spoken volumes. They have lost two of their last three heading into the playoffs, however. The two losses Sunapee endured came to No. 2 Newmarket and No. 6 Epping. The Mules have just as much of a right to be favored in the tournament given they have the same record (14-2) as the Lakers. Marie Hoehner, Paige Fowler and Allie Gallion are a few names pacing Newmarket, which has at least one player from every grade starting for them.

Epping met Sunapee in the final last season but earned the sixth seed this fall. A lot of the same names are back for Epping coach Will Titus from that title bout, which leaves the potential for the Blue Devils to possibly turn back the clock to find their way back to the title game. Third-seeded Colebrook is also in the mix after reaching the semifinals last season.

High School Soccer appears Tuesdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail jduball@unionleader.com.


NHIAA

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