NHIAA Football: Title memories still fresh for StevensBy ROGER BROWN
New Hampshire Union Leader
August 23. 2017 9:40PM
CLAREMONT — What was the best thing about winning the 2016 NHIAA Division III football championship? Perhaps it was the free cheeseburgers.
A raucous celebration began shortly after Stevens of Claremont defeated Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough 46-20 in last year’s Division III championship game. The victory ended a drought that had Stevens’ fans thirsty for a championship. The Cardinals hadn’t won a title in football since 1968 and a state championship of any kind since 1989 (boys’ soccer).
There was a large crowd waiting when the Stevens bus was escorted into town by fire and police personnel that day.
“As soon as we got to town the streets were lined with people honking their horns,” recalled senior Aidan Cahill, an offensive and defensive lineman on this year’s team. “It (the celebration) really didn’t end until a couple months ago. Tavern on the Square, a restaurant in town, had free burgers for the team the following Tuesday, and then we had our banner ceremony and plenty of people showed up for that to congratulate us. And then we had our ring ceremony a couple months ago where we got our championship rings.”
“It was pretty special,” Stevens coach Paul Silva added. “If you saw the reception we got when we got back into town it would give you an idea of just how important it was not only for the school and the kids, but for the city itself. In a blue-collar town like this that’s big stuff.
“It’s such a great community and the support we get for athletics is fantastic. It’s something you’re not going to forget.”
Stevens’ path to the University of New Hampshire — the site for all three of the NHIAA football championship games — was a difficult one. After a 7-2 regular season the Cardinals earned the No. 3 seed from Division III North and opened the playoffs against Campbell of Litchfield, the No. 2 seed from Division III South. After knocking off Campbell, Stevens avenged its two losses.
The Cardinals knocked off Monadnock of Swanzey 26-21 in the semifinals. Monadnock entered that game as the only unbeaten team in Division III and had allowed 31 points in its previous nine games. The Huskies beat the Cardinals 20-6 the previous week.
Then came the victory over IL/M, a team that beat the Cardinals 57-12 during the regular season.
“It was pretty much as satisfying as it can get,” Cahill said. “You lose two games in the regular season, come back and beat those teams and win the state championship — you can’t really write it better than that.”
Stevens returns four of its five starting offensive linemen from last season, but many of the skill-position players from last season are no longer on the roster. Running back Richard Bell (955 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns), wide receiver Parker Smith (1,294 receiving yards, 15 TDs) and fullback Zach O’Brien (298 yards rushing) graduated, and quarterback Henri Bourque has moved on to prep school. Bourque completed 125 passes for 2,010 yards and 20 TDs as a sophomore last season.
Sophomore Quentin Bicknell, who received significant playing time at linebacker as a freshman last season, will replace Bourque behind center.
Stevens also lost offensive coordinator Josh Duford, who landed a new job and is now on the Lebanon staff.
“We’re going to have some growing pains. I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Silva said. “We have very little experience at the skill positions.”
Although 27 of the 38 players on the Stevens roster are freshmen or sophomores, the Cardinals will be trying to earn more free food this season.
“Our returning guys have to set the tone for the younger guys,” Cahill said. “If we can get to the playoffs anything can happen.”