Plymouth High School football players gather during practice last week. The Bobcats are seeking a fourth straight Division II crown but will have to overcome the loss of seven all-division players.

The gap between Plymouth Regional and the rest of Division II isn’t as wide this year as it’s been in recent seasons. You’ve probably heard that before, but this year it might be true.

Plymouth, which extended its winning streak to 27 games by beating Alvirne of Hudson 29-18 in last year’s Division II championship game, has won the last three Division II titles, but lost a lot to graduation. Those who departed include halfback/defensive back Owen Brickley, who was the Division II Player of the Year last season. In addition to Brickley, the Bobcats graduated seven players — four on offense and three more on defense — who were named to the Division II North All-State First Team.

Plymouth returns three offensive starters and two defensive starters from last year’s team.

“Yes, the gap is certainly shortened, but until Plymouth loses it’s Plymouth’s (championship) to lose,” Souhegan coach Robin Bowkett said.

Even if Plymouth does make another trip to Durham, the road there will likely have bigger obstacles this year than it did in the past two seasons. Bow, which returns seven starters on each side of the ball, and Kennett of Conway figure to be among the roadblocks in the North.

Gilford/Belmont, which returns 16 starters, could be a team that’s ready to make some noise as well. The returnees include junior quarterback Alex Cheek, who passed for more than 1,400 yards last season and accounted for 13 touchdowns (running and passing).

“Plymouth is the team to beat in the North until someone proves they can do it,” Gilford/Belmont coach Josh Marzahl said. “Bow returns a lot of talent and they will be tough as usual. It should be an exciting season for the entire Division II.”

Meanwhile, Division II South appears to be deeper than your favorite ocean. Alvirne and Milford may be the favorites in that half of the division, but Hollis/Brookline, Pelham, Souhegan of Amherst and St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover could be playoff material as well.

“I don’t look at it like that,” Milford coach Keith Jones said when asked if Plymouth has come back to the pack this season. “Plymouth is the team to beat in the North, but I have a South schedule to play, and I’ll worry about Kennett (the only North team on Milford’s schedule) when we get to them. It’s a dogfight every week. I think that if we can stay healthy, we might be in there.”

Souhegan slotback/defensive back Trey Johnson sustained a season-ending knee injury at a summer football camp. Johnson would have been one of the top offensive threats in the division, but even without him the Sabers looked like contenders when they beat Division I Concord 13-0 in the Queen City Jamboree.

“Even with Trey down we feel like we have enough talent to make it to Durham,” Bowkett said. “Bow returns a lot, and you have a Gilford team that’s improved. On our side it could be any one of five teams that makes it there (to UNH). You have Alvirne, Milford returns a lot as well. Hollis is always going to be there with the Wimmers (brothers Quintin and Sander Wimmer). Pelham has a lot of seniors. Then there’s St. Thomas.

“It makes for a fun regular season, and I think the team that sticks together the most and stays healthy is going to win those tight games — and there’s going to be a lot of them.”

Players to Watch

Cody Bannon (QB) Plymouth, Andrew Berube (OL) Bow; Nikos Biskaduros (DB) John Stark; Colton Burrows (OT/DT) Milford; Alex Cheek (QB) Gilford/Belmont; Stone Compton (RB/DE) St. Thomas; Quin Connors (G/LB) Hollis/Brookline; Joe D’Ambruoso (LB) Plymouth; Austin Etchells (OT/DT) Hollis/Brookline; Jordan Escabi (SB/LB) Manchester West; Alex Giuffrida (RB/LB) Alvirne; Kyle Gora (QB/DB) Alvirne; Bobby Graustein (DL) Kennett; Steve Guerrette (RB) Bow; Sam Hodges (OT/DT) Milford; Grady Hudson (RB/CB) Alvirne; Austin Johnson (WR) Hollis/Brookline; Kevin Johnson (DL) Manchester West; Randy Johnson (OT/DT) Manchester West; Dom Jones (LB) Kennett; Tom Keegan (OT) Alvirne; Hunter Lessard (RB/LB) St. Thomas; Jack Loftus (DE) Hanover; Will MacLean (WR/SS) St. Thomas; Luke Manning (SE/CB) Souhegan; Mike Maroun (OT/LB) Souhegan; Jonathan Mitchell (LB) Gilford/Belmont; Caleb Morse (QB/S) Hanover; Justin Olson (DB) Kennett; Jacob Ridenour (LB) John Stark; Marc-Andre Thermitus (RB) Hollis/Brookline; Emmanuel Ughu (FB/DL) Milford; Ben Wagner (OL/DL) Hanover; Peter Wetherill (WR/DB) ConVal; Christopher Wheeler (LB) Bow; Morgan Williams (SE/CB) Alvirne; Quentin Wimmer (WR) Hollis/Brookline; Sander Wimmer (QB) Hollis/Brookline.

Three Key Games

Plymouth at Bow (Sept. 7)

This game should tell us how good Plymouth is — and how good Bow is as well.

Souhegan at St. Thomas (Sept. 7)

Like the Plymouth-Bow matchup, this is a Week 1 game between two of the top teams in the division.

Alvirne at Milford (Nov. 1)

There should be plenty at stake when these teams meet during the regular season’s final weekend. The Broncos and Spartans provided us with two of the most entertaining games in Division II last year, and this contest should be no different.