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NHIAA Boys' Soccer Preview: Power aplenty, but no favorites

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 23. 2017 9:46PM
Hanover High's Charlie Adams goes high for a header during action against Exeter last season. Hanover will be one of several competitors in the wide-open Division I field. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER FILE)
The Scoop: Boys' soccer
Players to watch: Ryan Sledjeski, Bedford, junior, back; Connor Ross, Timberlane, senior; midfield; Quinn Mantegari, senior, Exeter, forward; Liam Devanny, Concord, junior, goalie; Liam Bennett, Concord, junior, back; Taylor Silverstein, Concord, senior; midfield; Cole Perry, Pinkerton, senior, midfield; Charlie Adams, Hanover, sophomore, midfielder; Christian Allaire, Timberlane, senior, forward; Justin Johnson, Manchester Memorial, senior, back; Sam Pych, Hanover, senior, back; Alex Heghinian, Salem, senior, back; Charley Speaker, Bedford, senior, midfield; Enoch Kasa, Manchester Central, senior, midfield; Jordan Trombly, Manchester Memorial, senior, midfield; Mark Keiffer, Bedford, junior, forward; Josh Fichera, Salem, junior, forward; Tyler Smith, Pembroke, senior, goalie; Nate Moore, Oyster River, senior, back; Brian Sheahan, Windham, senior, back; Damon Smith, Pembroke, senior, midfield; Kyle Cocciardi, Windham, senior, midfield; Jordan Cooper, ConVal, senior, forward; Jake Reynolds, John Stark, senior, back; Owen Johnstone, Lebanon, senior, midfield; Max Sturgess, ConVal, senior, forward; Tyler Hanf, Gilford, senior, back; Max Rossignol, Hopkinton, senior, midfield; Nate Kelsey, Derryfield, senior, midfield; Colin Plante, Bishop Brady, senior, midfield; Oliver Simon, Derryfield, senior, forward; Jeff Pratt, Derryfield, senior, midfield; Jason Brammer, junior, Littleton, back; Cameron Darrah, Pittsfield, senior, forward; Fiston Kapongo, Portsmouth Christian, junior, forward

Key games: Manchester Central at Bedford, Aug. 25; Bow at Lebanon, Aug. 25; Exeter at Hanover, Aug. 29; Derryfield at Campbell, Aug. 30; Manchester Memorial at Bedford, Sept. 5; Lebanon at Goffstown, Sept. 25; Epping at Newmarket, Sept. 26; Hopkinton at Derryfield, Sept. 26; Littleton at Woodsville, Oct. 10; Exeter at Manchester Memorial, Oct. 13; Derryfield at Gilford, Oct. 13; Newmarket at Portsmouth Christian, Oct. 16; Bedford at Timberlane, Oct. 17; Concord at Pinkerton, Oct. 17; Timberlane at Manchester Central, Oct. 19; Windham at Goffstown, Oct. 19; Stevens at Hopkinton, Oct. 20

Making a run at a championship is as much about timing as it is the caliber of a team. Division I boys’ soccer champion Exeter and runner-up Manchester Memorial, both seeded outside the top five in the 2016 tournament, proved as much.

As the 2017 season kicks off on Friday, it appears it will take the same timely effort for a D-I club to separate itself from what has become an even playing field. The division is laced with teams capable of making title aspirations become reality.

“I think we see the same old teams ready to compete,” Bedford coach Stuart Pepper said. “Anyone can beat anyone right now. There’s a lot of respect for these programs and coaches, and we have to be ready every time out because there are going to be surprises out there.”

The Bulldogs have been up to the challenge over the last two seasons, losing just two regular season games but falling short in the playoffs. Pepper believes this year’s crew is prepared to exorcise its playoff demons.

“We’ve been young the last couple of seasons and I think that really shows in the big games,” Pepper said. “You need to use that experience and talent in those situations when they come about and I think we have all that this year with a lot of guys that have played in big matches now.”

Bedford lost the Statires trio, with Charlie graduating and his younger brothers opting to play club soccer, but the Bulldogs’ cupboard is far from bare. Junior Mark Keiffer is expected to up the ante offensively, according to Pepper, while Division I college prospect Ryan Sledjeski returns to anchor the backline.

While Pepper doesn’t expect many tactical changes for his club, Mitch Mencis plans to switch things up for Timberlane of Plaistow, which was a goal away from a championship appearance last season.

“The style of play is definitely going to change with the offensive firepower we have,” Mencis said. “We’re trying to figure out how to take full advantage of the weapons we have with us.”

Those weapons include speedy midfielder Connor Ross, and forwards Christian Allaire and Matt Perry. Al Barney and Jake Morrier key a defense that will face sweeping changes and adjustments as the year begins.

“We’ve got some returning guys that know we have holes out back and have thrown their hat in the ring here,” Mencis said. “They see an opportunity to get on the field playing defense, so they’re going to play their butts off and prove they can be trusted back there, which is just fantastic.”

Exeter will not let its title go without a fight, which will be led by one of the league’s most dynamic scorers in Quinn Mantegari. Also returning to help the Blue Hawks’ cause are Lee Veader, Sean Lavery and Alex Carbone.

Memorial took a big step with its title game appearance last fall and will be looking for a return there led by Jordan Trombly’s scoring and Joey Johnson’s defensive prowess. Manchester Central will follow suit with its crosstown rival with forward Joshue Assantha and Paolo Tedesco up front.

Perennial powers Concord, Hanover, Londonderry and Pinkerton of Derry are very much in the picture as well.

Division II

Like Division I, the landscape in Division II is fluid these days. Goffstown is the defending champion and primed to defend while Lebanon, Windham, Pembroke, ConVal and Oyster River of Durham are just a few ready to make their move.

“It’s not like there is a game out there where you can say ‘Oh, that’s a day for the second team,’” Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone said.

While he spoke highly of Windham and Pembroke, Johnstone is pretty confident about his Raiders as he rolls into his 25th year at the helm. Lebanon fell devastatingly short against Goffstown in the final last season but has its sights set forward rather than dwelling on what could have been. The majority of the Raiders’ experience lies with the front six, which is highlighted by Luke Sandmann, Rob’s son Owen Johnstone and Logan Falzarano.

“We’ve had long-term success, but the danger in that is guys getting the Lebanon jersey and thinking that makes them good,” Rob Johnstone said. “We don’t have that with this group at all. They see it as having the jersey and now proving they are worthy of it. … The guys came in very fit and are playing like they’re ready to live up to being here.”

Goffstown graduated two big guns in Sam Heidenreich and Ethan Skinner. Grizzlies coach Randy Lovering said Mike Fortin and Noah Charron are going to fill those roles admirably, but the team’s style will change.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what kind of team we’re going to be in these first few weeks,” Lovering said. “Sam and Ethan were such big, strong, and physical guys with such a good touch. We don’t have that same toughness, but these guys will figure out who they are going to be once they get a chance to really play together.”

Johnstone and Lovering both cited Windham and Pembroke as teams who might be ahead of the rest. The Jaguars lost just a handful of starters and get big top guys like Brian Sheahan and Kyle Cocciardi. The Spartans will be hard to score on with goalie Tyler Smith and defensive midfielder Kobie Valdes returning and forward Damon Smith pacing the offense.

Division III

The D-III ranks are unlike any other with how top-heavy the league is shaping up. While no team should be discounted, the consensus has been that defending champion Hopkinton, Derryfield of Manchester, Gilford and Stevens of Claremont are the top dogs heading into the year.

The Hawks have experience on their side, but lost forward Jake Rockwood and sweeper Tucker Windhurst, both of whom solidified Hopkinton’s efforts on their ends of the field.

“I’ve had kids of their caliber before, but to lose two of them in one year is interesting. Not devastating, but just odd,” Hopkinton coach Scott Zipke said. “We’ve got a solid core coming back, so it’s not all doom and gloom. There are certainly big holes to fill though.”

Zipke foresees Max Rossignol and Gerry Donahue raising their games to fill Rockwood’s loss while Dustin Rose and Derek West are slated to help ease the loss of Windhurst out back. New starting goalie Sam Crawford has also opened eyes during the opening weeks and has Zipke excited.

“We’ve kind of cultivated this attitude where you don’t expect to win, but you try to be in every single game you play,” Zipke said. “It keeps them hungry. There are high expectations, but no one is overconfident. This group we have now has their heads in the right place.”

Hopkinton isn’t even the favorite this time around, though. That title belongs to Derryfield, which has a stacked roster for it’s second tour through Division III. The Cougars are highlighted by a three-headed monster up front with seniors Nate Kelsey, Oliver Simon and Jeff Pratt.

“This current class has 11 seniors, which is more than I’ve had on any of my teams,” Cougars coach Jeff Cousineau said. “We’re going to have to re-invent ourselves next year, but we’re going to enjoy the opportunities we have right now.”

Gilford is expected to be stout defensively with stud keeper Ethan Warren back while the defense in front of him is filled with returners. Stevens lost top scorer Noah Spaulding to prep school, but otherwise has its 2016 runner-up squad intact.

Division IV

Epping took advantage of Derryfield’s move to Division III last season and won itself a title. Woodsville is now preparing to try to follow Epping’s lead after being ousted in the semifinals three out of the last four seasons, including last season by the Blue Devils.

“We’re hoping this will be the year,” said Woodsville coach Mike Ackerman, who enters his 41st season as head coach of the Engineers. “This group has a passion for the game, which is key for any group, and they get along well. You need both those to do anything out there.”

Ackerman lost a big contributor in Antonio Houde, who scored a whopping 56 goals last season. Houde’s absence will change the Engineers’ formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 this fall, according to Ackerman. Players like Alex Enderson, Garrett Olsen and Adam Cataldo will headline the new scheme up front while trying to offer a semblance of Houde’s production as a group.

Portsmouth Christian Academy of Dover made the semifinals a year ago as well and were slated to lose just two seniors, leaving them primed to contend. Littleton will have unfinished business after losing in the final last season, but a sophomore class led by standout forward Danny Kubkowski has hopes high for the Crusaders.

Epping and Newmarket will also contend, while Sunapee and Profile could sneak up on opponents.