In the past few seasons, Bedford High School boys’ soccer coach Stuart Pepper had a team that could almost coach itself at times. After graduating 11 seniors from last year’s NHIAA Division I championship team, the 13th-year Bulldogs coach does not have that same type of group this fall.
“As a coach, it’s quite nice,” Pepper said of having a new-look team. “Now I have an opportunity where we have to really get lots of good coaching in and good learning in and they’ve taken that on board. So far, I think they’re accepting the challenge and it’s going to be a big challenge.”
While these Bulldogs lack the experience their title-winning predecessors from a year ago enjoyed, they should again be a factor in the title picture. With returners like senior co-captains Zach Verow, a forward, and Aidan Wisherd, a goalkeeper, and senior forward Vitor Rodrigues, Bedford enters the season with talent at key positions and strong leaders.
“One thing that won it for us last year was the way we molded the team spirit, togetherness and understanding, pulling together as one to have the opportunity to succeed,” Pepper said. “I think that’s been our failure in the past. We’ve not quite managed to do that. We’re working hard on the chemistry of the team — trying to get the best out of each other.”
Teams that look to be in the best position to vie for the crown Bedford holds are Manchester Central, which finished runner-up last year, last season’s other semifinalists in Concord and Hanover, and Pinkerton Academy of Derry. Each of those teams finished in the top five in the regular season last year.
Central coach Chris LaBerge is feeling good about his team that returns seven starters — five sophomores and two juniors — from last year’s team. The Little Green have been to seven of the past 10 D-I title games under LaBerge, who is entering his 20th season leading the program.
With a potent offensive group led by junior striker Sam Assantha, LaBerge expects his team will have no trouble scoring goals. His concern is getting his young and inexperienced back four up to speed.
“From the midfield forward, we’re good,” LaBerge said. “It’s just a matter of young players getting games under their belt — these defenders. Once they start to get comfortable — and I think they will about midway during the season — we’ll know where we’re at as a total team but I’m confident.”
Pinkerton fell to Concord, 2-1, in last year’s quarterfinals. Concord, which won the division title in both 2015 and 2017, boasts both size and skill this year, according to 23rd-year coach Scott Dunlop.
“If we can harness that in the right way, we’ll be able to attack and be dangerous on the outside,” Dunlop said.
Like LaBerge’s Central team, Hanover coach Rob Grabill will have a talented striker leading his offense in senior Charlie Adams, who will continue his career at Brown next year.
“Hanover with Charlie Adams is always going to be a big threat,” Pepper said. “Someone with Charlie in their program can build a championship around him.”
Adams will co-captain the Marauders alongside speedy senior center back Kyle Doucette, who are among the 15 seniors and 18 lettermen returning from last year’s Hanover team that lost to Central, 4-0, in the semifinals.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Grabill said. “We’ve been there before. We got to the semifinals last year. We’d love to go back this year but it’s tough in Division I. Everyone reloads. No one rebuilds.”
With 16 returning players from the team that won the program’s first state championship last fall, ConVal of Peterborough enters this season as the clear-cut title favorite in Division II.
Among ConVal’s notable returners are senior goalkeeper Mather Kipka, senior back Zach Kriebel and senior midfielder August Marshall, who were all All-Division First Team selections last year. The Cougars also return senior forward Colby Knight, who was an All-Division honorable mention last year.
ConVal coach Josh Smith said his team has experience, depth and versatility.
“I would say by far ConVal is No. 1,” fourth-year Merrimack Valley of Penacook coach Ken Fuller said. “For them to come back with pretty much the same team, they’re going to be really tough, I think.”
Like Smith’s ConVal team, Fuller expects experience will be a strength for Merrimack Valley. The Pride return seven players from last year’s playoff team, including senior strikers Colby Mercier and Logan Cassin.
“I think they’ll give teams a lot of trouble,” Fuller said of Mericer and Cassin. “They did last year and I think this year they’ve come even a little bit further. I think they’ll be hard to match up with.”
Fuller said it has been a long time since the Pride won a playoff game, something his group is looking to change this fall.
“The first thing is to win a playoff game and then my guys, their mindset is reaching the finals,” Fuller said.
Alongside ConVal and Merrimack Valley, Hollis/Brookline, Oyster River of Durham and Bow are expected to be in the title hunt.
Hollis/Brookline graduated five seniors from last year’s quarterfinal team but returns four-year starting goalkeeper Ryan Coutu and its leading scorer last year: senior striker JJ Kennedy.
With the strength, speed and height Hollis/Brookline has in the attacking third, Cavaliers fourth-year coach Steve Martus said his team will boast a formidable offensive unit this year.
“I think our huge strength this year is offense,” Martus said. “I think we have a lot of experience when it comes to offensive experience.”
Bow defeated Oyster River in the quarterfinals before falling to eventual runner-up Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in the semifinals last year.
Coe-Brown, Pembroke, which reached the semifinals last year, and Lebanon, which fell to ConVal in the quarterfinals last year, are other teams to watch. After one year away from the sidelines, Rob Johnstone has returned as Lebanon’s head coach. Johnstone previously coached Lebanon for 25 years before stepping down last year.
Pembroke coach Peter Bisson said his team has a large number of hardworking, smart players that are aiming to return to the semifinals.
“It should be another exciting year with so many quality teams on the same level,” Smith said in an email. “The team that finds the right combination of players to play the best soccer down the stretch will probably be the team that wins the championship.”
Hopkinton enters this season coming off a semifinal appearance but coach Scott Zipke said last year’s campaign was not an overly satisfying one for his team.
The Hawks, who most recently won the D-III crown in 2016, finished 8-4-4 in the regular season and 10-5-4 overall last year. Hopkinton fell to eventual runner-up Trinity of Manchester, 3-2 in overtime, in the semifinals last year.
“We got good experience and almost played in the championship but I don’t think if you asked those (returning) guys that they’d say last year was a super successful year,” Zipke said. “I think there is good motivation. They’re ready to go.”
Hopkinton will go for this year’s title without graduated senior Paul Molnar, who was the team’s leading goal-scorer by a large margin last year, and a new starting goalkeeper in sophomore Aidan Burns.
Zipke will look to senior Derek West and junior Andrew Beckwith to provide some goals and senior defensive midfielder Benny Madden to aid Burns and a back line full of new faces.
“I would say the guys know what we’re trying to do,” Zipke said. “It’s one of the more soccer smart teams I’ve ever had.”
Zipke said Trinity and defending champion Campbell of Litchfield should be in the title mix again this year. He also expects Gilford and Mascenic of New Ipswich to make some noise.
Trinity graduated eight seniors from last year’s runner-up team but has several notable returners like junior goalkeeper Anthony DiZillo. Campbell graduated 10 seniors from the team that defeated Trinity, 1-0, on penalty kicks in last year’s final. That championship-winning roster also included eight juniors and six freshmen, however.
Gilford went 9-5-2 in the regular season and fell to Campbell in the quarterfinals last season. Mascenic went 10-6 in the regular season and lost to Belmont in last year’s quarterfinals.
With a healthy sophomore class on arguably the most positive and upbeat team he has ever coached, Epping coach Kerry McDermott has decided to change tactics.
McDermott said the Blue Devils are returning to a possession-based style of play, the same approach the program had when it won its first state championship in 2016.
“In 2016, Epping won the Division IV championship and we worked several years on a high-possession style of play, which was undeniably a major part of our success,” McDermott said. “This group right here is very similar. It takes awhile to develop a team into a possession team. I have a core group that wants to do that and make that happen.”
Among that sophomore class is striker Mike Picard, who will serve as co-captain alongside senior goalkeeper Peyton Rivers. Picard, who stood about 5 feet, 3 inches last year as a freshman, propelled Epping into the quarterfinals last fall by scoring the overtime game-winning goal on a header in his team’s 2-1 first-round victory over Portsmouth Christian Academy of Dover.
Epping fell to eventual runner-up Newmarket in the quarterfinals last year.
“We have a really solid core of sophomores, of which Mike is one of that group,” McDermott said. “They really feel like they can do some really big things.”
The Blue Devils are motivated to improve on last year’s 9-7 regular-season record and reach the semifinals. Other strong candidates to be among the final four standing are defending champion Sunapee, Newmarket and Littleton.
Sunapee graduated seven seniors but had nine sophomores on last fall’s championship team that beat Newmarket, 1-0, in the final. Newmarket entered the title game with an undefeated record.
Littleton went 15-1 in the regular season and fell to Sunapee, 1-0, in the semifinals last season.
“Littleton is always in the hunt,” McDermott said. “I don’t know what they’re doing up there in Littleton — what they’ve got going on in the food or water — but they’re always producing high-quality teams in pretty much every sport.”