When the NHIAA rubber-stamped a three-division format for the 2013 football season, several head coaches voiced their displeasure. Some of the loudest barks came from Division VI, which combined with Division V to form a new-look Division III.
There are coaches who will tell you that the competitive gap between the teams that were in Divisions V and VI last season is greater than the gap between teams that competed in the old Divisions I and II or the gap between teams that were in the previous version of Division III and Division IV. Other coaches will tell you that's nonsense.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of the (former) Division VI teams are pretty new to football," Somersworth coach Dan Hodsdon said. "The teams that have been in Division V are established programs."
Whether you like the new alignment or not, this much seems clear: This was as good a time as any for a merger of Division V and Division VI.
Why? For starters, no one will have to worry about Monadnock Regional of Swanzey, last year's Division V champion. The Huskies appear to be strong again but were moved to Division II even though they are a Division III program by enrollment.
In addition, Somersworth and Stevens of Claremont, a pair of Division V playoff teams last year, have lots of holes to fill on each side of the ball. And then there's Jesiah Wade, who led the state in rushing last season (2,204 yards). Wade figured to be the top offensive threat in Division III, but has transferred from Campbell of Litchfield and will play for Division I Manchester Central instead.
"I don't have a problem with (realignment)," said Mascoma Valley Regional of Canaan coach Ray Kershaw, whose team lost to Franklin in last year's Division VI championship game. "We'll play whoever's on our schedule.
"It is harder for the smaller schools, but that means coaches will have to get in the high school and recruit kids to get their numbers up. They have to get in the middle school and make themselves visible. When I took over at Mascoma (in 2009), we had 15 players. Now we have close to 40."
Despite heavy losses, Stevens and Somersworth are healthy programs that figure to be among the favorites to win this year's title. Stevens, which graduated 15 seniors, will lean on running back Donald Pellerin, who ran for 713 yards last season. Three of last year's five offensive linemen also return.
"We have to rebuild for sure," Stevens coach Paul Silva said. "Donald is really my only skilled player returning who got significant playing time for us.
"People can say what they want, but we're in a tough conference. Anybody who underestimates Mascoma is making a mistake. (Kershaw's) got the 11 players he needs to run the (double wing) offense that he does."
Somersworth, which also graduated 15 seniors, has three returning starters.
"Until we can prove ourselves on the field, I'm not going to say we're the team to beat," Hodsdon said. "We have a small junior and senior class. Right now I have no idea what kind of team we're going to be."
Mascoma returns nine starters, seven of whom are seniors. The Royals will have four seniors in the offensive backfield, including Kyle Kosoriek, the team's No. 2 rusher last season.
"Our line was our strength last year," Kershaw said. "This year we have a lot of youth up front. The team strength is in the offensive backfield."
Despite an offseason coaching change, Franklin is another team that could go deep into the postseason. First-year head coach Jeff Kaplan said 42 players came out for football this year.
"Four of our five offensive linemen are back," Kaplan said. "We're solid up front. Defense will be more of a challenge."
Newport has one of the top quarterbacks in Division III in Andrew Houde. After that there's a lot of uncertainty in the division.
"It's going to be a little bit tougher to win a championship," Kershaw said. "And it's going to be quite a process to get there."