It's Timberlane time again on the wrestling mat
Timberlane's Josh Burnham, top, holds down Concord's Hayden Redlon during a 130 lb. quarterfinal match in last season's NHIAA Meet of Champions in Londonderry. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER FILE)
For 13 consecutive years, Timberlane Regional of Plaistow has won a state championship and produced some of the top wrestlers in New England.
Matt Smith won four New England titles and captured a national championship in 2002. Eric Bradley won his last state title in 2000 and blossomed into a two-time Big-10 champion and All-America at Penn State. Despite decades of success - and heavy expectations of winning another Division I title this season - the Owls manage to stay hungry every time they hit the mat.
Coach Barry Chooljian, who owns an overall record of 448-44-5 since 1987, doesn't just reload - he rejuvenates. Timberlane makes a visit to Londonderry when the NHIAA wrestling season begins Wednesday.
"New team, new season, new motivation. We do a pretty good job of putting the previous year behind us," Chooljian said. "We have a culture here of winning because kids understand the practice room is a place to train hard."
Two-time state champion Adam Corey, a senior, is among 10 returning starters from last season. Both Corey (120 pounds or 126 pounds) and senior teammate Josh Burnham (138 or 145) are approaching 100 career wins. Senior Harry Denoncourt (182 or 195) is another returning state champ for the Owls. Seniors Jordan Eastman, Josh Riley and Jake Kappler all reached the finals last year.
"We don't have the superstars like we've had in other years, but we have a really solid nucleus of seniors," Chooljian said.
Concord, which finished runner-up last season, has come the closest to knocking Timberlane off its perch. In the 2007 state meet, the Owls barely edged Concord, 239.5-237.5. The Crimson Tide are led by upper-weights Wally Ndi, Brennan Haywood and Vinny Benincasa. Ndi, moving up to 195 pounds, was the top wrestler in Division I at 182 last season.
Pinkerton of Derry, Londonderry and Salem should be among the top five teams in the division. Pinkerton's Jean-Luc Lemieux is coming off a breakout freshman campaign in which he posted a 40-4 record. Senior Tyler Ellwood and Marcus Jacobo are the grapplers to watch at Nashua South. Nashua North is led by Joe Chimelski, Evan Manns, and the Titans are loaded with talented underclassmen, including sophomore Cam Bennett. The Exeter program, led by David Burke and James Kelly, looks to challenge the big dogs.
Timberlane, for the past dozen years, has been the biggest dog on the porch.
"We can't wait for them to have a down year because it's not going to happen," Concord coach Ham Munnell said. "We have to raise our level."
Hollis/Brookline's core wrestlers broke through and defeated Milford, 194-191, to capture the 2012 state championship.
Two of the team's biggest weapons, brothers Zach and Nick McPherson, will challenge for state honors.
Milford's Joe Albina, best in his division at 170 pounds last season, returns for the championship-minded Spartans. Albina, Connor Borne and Joe Pellitteri have been named Milford senior captains. Milford returns at least 10 wrestlers with significant varsity experience. Alvirne of Hudson, Bedford, Goffstown and Merrimack are on the rise in Division II.
Windham made a rapid ascent to the top, defeating Plymouth to claim the school's first wrestling title last season. Seniors Jeff Armstrong and Zach Sprague, along with junior Tyler Siverhus, return for the Jaguars.
Plymouth, winner of the inaugural Division III title in 2011, is on a mission led by Dakota Simula. The 220-pounder returns to defend his title, while Sean Zaikowski is among the favorites at heavyweight.
Chase Whyman (182) and Dennis White (170) give the Bobcats plenty of muscle for a third straight trip to the finals.
Bow and John Stark of Weare will be solid.
Defending champs: Timberlane, Hollis/Brookline, Windham
Big Story: Timberlane returns 10 starters, including senior Adam Corey, who enters the season with 99 career wins. Coach Barry Chooljian owns a career record of 448-44-5 since 1987. During that span his teams have lost only 23 times against in-state competition.
Favorites: Timberlane, of course. Milford has the depth to dethrone Hollis/Brookline. Plymouth is the favorite to win Division III.
Ten to Watch: Adam Corey and Josh Burnham, Timberlane; Vinny Benincasa, Concord; Wally Ndi, Concord; Jean-Luc Lemieux, Pinkerton; Joe Chimelski, Nashua North; Tyler Ellwood, Nashua South; Joe Albina, Milford; Zach McPherson, Hollis/Brookline; Dakota Simula, Plymouth