The only question worth asking in Division I girls’ basketball this season is the same one circling the league the last two seasons: Who is going to put an end to Bishop Guertin of Nashua’s reign of dominance?
The good news is there’s two-plus months for teams to try their hand at solving the Cardinals, who are three-time defending D-I champions. The bad news is Bishop Guertin lost three players (one starter) from last year’s title squad, meaning all its elite talent and depth is back in the fold for a run at a fourth state crown.
“It’s hard because BG is just that good,” said Pinkerton coach Lani Buskey, whose Astros lost to the Cardinals in last year’s finale. “It seems like each time they have somebody else step in they get better and better.”
Fourth-year Bishop Guertin coach Brad Kreick took on a strong group of freshmen during his second season at the helm that has now gone on to produce two titles. Those freshmen are now juniors, but their games have yet to level off. Erin Carney, Hannah Muchemore, Addi Smith, Bri Wilcox and Aaliyah Foreman have grown up fast for the Cardinals and each continue to find ways to up their game while forming a dynamic, up-tempo style of play that few teams can match.
The graduation of sharpshooter and team leader Caroline Hoffer leaves a bit of a hole in a starting lineup that returns all but Hoffer. As has been the case for BG in recent seasons, though, Kreick has options to fill voids. Between the efforts of junior Ava Owens, who transferred from Pelham last season, and senior Gabby Sousa, regarded as another elite talent who saw limited minutes last season due to BG’s depth, the Cardinals aren’t expected to miss a beat.
“They’re still the best team out there,” Bedford coach Sue Thomas said. “All their sophomores are now juniors, which is depressing because that just means there is two more years of them.”
Pinkerton and Bedford are the two teams BG had to beat to win a title last winter and figure to be the clubs that have the best shot to unseat the Cardinals this season.
The Astros graduated a pair of starters, including star point guard Amanda Lemire, while another one of last year’s starters, Alicia D’Onofrio, is out for the season. Buskey remains cautiously optimistic because reigning D-I Player of the Year Brooke Kane, a recent UNH commit, is back for her senior swan song.
“She signed the letter and now that’s off her back so now she can just focus on her senior year,” Buskey said of the 6-foot Kane. “I hope she has fun with this. The Brooke Kane that has fun is a better ballplayer. If she’s that player, and I know this will sound funny, I think she will have an even better year than last year.”
Madison Mahoney is the other returning starter with Kane while Jesse Ames, Alyssa DiMauro, Sofia Riccio and Megan King are a few names that will see plenty of meaningful minutes.
“There’s a really good set of juniors here that are stepping in and are excited for it,” Buskey said. “That’s kind of cool for me to see some experience but new blood at the same time. … I’m hoping to see some growth and get to the promise land if we can.”
Bedford is always regarded as a threat for a title, which Thomas admits is because she’s fortunate to reload instead of rebuild. That is the case again this time around for the Bulldogs, who will turn to last year’s youthful depth to combat the loss of four major contributors to last year’s semifinal team that went undefeated in the regular season.
“The last two years I pretty much had the same exact team,” Thomas said. “Last year was the most fun and the best team I could ever coach, so what I’ve told returning players is that we can’t repeat that. We can’t try to replicate that part on the court.”
Thomas is excited about Alli Morgan taking the reins of the offense and the prospects of sophomore Isabella King, who Thomas said is the best pure shooter she has. Bedford’s low post options are Amanda Jonas and Kendi Barnard while Lizzy Stevenson returns as a versatile asset on both ends of the floor.
The difference-maker for Bedford is less a player than an attitude. Thomas sees an array of talent on her squad again, but she hopes a new sense of toughness will add a positive wrinkle to Bedford’s formula.
“They like to push each other around a little more than I’ve seen in the past,” Thomas said. “We actually do toughness drills to get them there. This group is hungry for it after playing in the shadows of some tough players. They just want to take over the team and have it be theirs.”
A slew of teams figure to be in the running for top-five seeding this winter, including Manchester Memorial, Manchester Central, Londonderry and Salem.
Memorial was a semifinalist a year ago and hopes to compete again despite graduation depleting its roster. Lyric Grumblatt showed to be a rising two-way talent last season and will take on a feature role for the Crusaders this season. Jennessa Brunette is expected to be a focal point as well while a young, speedy backcourt of Tamrah Gould and Jess Carrier might surprise teams.
Mike Wenners believes he has a good mix of basketball talent and general athleticism to put Central in position to contend. Destiny Jordan, Emily Greenwood and Shae Rix are the names to watch for the Little Green, who are focused on locking teams down defensively more than ever.
“We are going to need to play good, tough defense to help generate more offense,” Wenners said. “If we can get some easy transition baskets off created turnovers and defensive rebounding it will help us get in a better flow with our half-court offense.”
Londonderry has endured a numbers crunch and players leaving for prep school in recent years, but Nick Theos is eager to see what his group, mainly composed of sophomores and juniors, will bring to the table. Motivation among the Lancers is high, but the talent is there too with Courtney Shay among the budding talents in the division while Ashley Rourke and the two other starters are back.
Also returning four starters is Salem, which many consider to be a sleeper among contenders. Christine Aboujaoude is the most prominent among those back in the fold while Emily Doucette, Jordyn Franzen and Carly Saif will offer their share of contributions.
“We will be young and undersized compared to the other Division I teams,” Salem coach Ricky Oliver said. Aboujaoude and Doucette are the team’s only seniors. “Building confidence in this group of young players will take time, but it’s a dedicated group that fully understands that our goal is to take it one game at a time, compete on every possession, and show growth throughout the season.”
Portsmouth is another dark-horse contender as it re-enters Division I. Abbe Laurence, Arianna Hebert and Corinne Lamond will lead the charge for the Clippers, who made the jump to D-I with Goffstown and Windham.
Defending D-II champion Hollis/Brookline redeemed itself last season after falling in the 2017 title game. Cavaliers coach Bob Murphy went as far as calling the title “Christmas for seasons past.”
Having no reason to look back at their missteps this time, the Cavaliers are stocked for a repeat and poised to do so. Four of five starters are returning to the court for Hollis/Brookline and Murphy said each player has raised her game to new heights in the offseason.
“I think we have a real good combination of players and a tough team to plan against,” Murphy said. “There’s some really good experience here now with several players, and many are starters, have been to two title games.”
The difference-makers will be forwards Elizabeth Atkinson and Elizabeth Bonnette, who are 6-foot-1 and 5-foot-9 respectively. Height like that is hard to match in Division II when its one player, but two tall threats makes life harder in terms of opposing teams trying to get to the basket and control the boards. Atkinson is coming off her fourth consecutive D-I volleyball title this fall, leaving her with plenty of experience defending titles.
Christina Balsamo and Brodie Kelley will be cogs around the perimeter for the Cavaliers, who intend to reach into their depth more at all positions this season. Murphy believes he can dig into his bench more due to a group of freshmen led by Elizabeth Stapelfeld, the younger sister of former Hollis/Brookline sharpshooter Cassie Stapelfeld.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a couple of freshmen be impact-type players,” Murphy said. “I can see it already. These kids are stepping right in and ready to be real contributing factors. They’re not going to be sitting on the bench, but key players in games because of their talents.”
Despite three perennial contenders moving to Division I, Murphy still sees plenty of challenges for his club with teams like Hanover, Lebanon and Pelham on the schedule.
Hanover figures to be the most equipped in terms of matching Hollis/Brookline’s experience and talent. It starts with last year’s emergence of now-sophomore Maddie McCorkle, who figures to be in the Player of the Year conversation out of the shoot. Dan O’Rourke also has Lois and Diana Schwarz back and fully healthy, as is center Julia Golder, who recently signed on for a collegiate rowing career at UCLA. The Marauders are also forecast to have three junior centers back that stand at least 6 feet tall.
Lebanon’s hopes will be tied to reigning D-II Player of the Year Becky Wright. The junior has watched several teammates either graduate or transfer to prep schools since the Raiders won the 2015-2016 title, but Wright remains loyal to Tim Kehoe. Her post presence alone gives the Raiders a chance to win night in and night out. Guard Anna Wolke is another veteran piece that should help guide Lebanon’s young squad.
Pelham and Bishop Brady of Concord will look to be in the mix despite losing big names like Danielle Sirois and Sam Will. Olivia Gagnon will be the featured player for the Pythons while the Green Giants will turn to the underclass backourt of Ami Rivera and Kaylee Smith to lead their efforts.
Souhegan of Amherst and Bow are other teams to watch while Sanborn and Stevens of Claremont are newcomers to Division II.
Conant of Jaffrey scored 36 points in its Division III title win a year ago. The Orioles return three players who produced 34 of those points and took 26 of the team’s 35 shots.
Experience bodes well for the Orioles’ chances at a repeat, but the talent that comes with those experienced players has Conant coach Brian Troy optimistic.
“We’ve had a good preseason, but more important is that we’ve had a group that’s stayed committed,” said Troy, whose Orioles began the season Friday at home against Belmont. “They really want to do something special again this year. There’s a lot of momentum here from last year’s accomplishments.”
The momentum has a lot to do with sophomore guard Elizabeth Gonyea, who as a freshman combined to score 32 points between the semifinals and finals last season. Gonyea’s mid-range game and work off the dribble were strengths last year and are only expected to grow as she does.
Mariah Chamberlain and Camri Aho join Gonyea in the aforementioned returning trio. Chamberlain will be Conant’s go-to post option while Aho is the team’s 3-point specialist.
“We’re definitely an inside-out team still,” Troy said. “We’ll try to feed the post or jump on those open driving lanes. … We definitely like the three-ball, but we’d obviously like to get to the rim more. Those shots are big for us, though, and will continue to be part of our strategy.”
The team Conant has to worry about most is Monadnock of East Swanzey, which lost to Conant in last year’s semifinals after beating the Orioles in the 2016-2017 final. Curt Dutilley lost some pedigree to graduation, but point guard Caitlyn Boucher is back and a prime reason the Huskies will be in the conversation. The senior’s elite athleticism gives her an edge regularly while her basketball skills are catching up. She’ll work with forwards Gwen Simpson and Colby Sanders to hound opposing offenses while keeping an up-tempo pace on the offensive end.
Hopkinton, last year’s D-III runner-up, watched much of its team graduate but has building blocks in Katie Meserve, Amelia Thomas and Maurgan McGrath. Newfound of Bristol graduated just one player from last year’s team and has 2016-2017 Player of the Year Ashlee Dukette back in the saddle for her senior season under new coach Kammi Williams.
Belmont will pin its hopes to Julianna Estremera’s knack for finding the bottom of the basket. Gilford is also in the mix with two starters back from their semifinal team.
Hinsdale’s second title in five years was spurred by a team that had three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior on the floor during last year’s championship game.
So while the title was sweet, the promise of future titles due to Hinsdale’s youth creates greater satisfaction for Pacers coach Terry Bonnette, who has eight sophomores and one senior this winter.
“There are six girls that have playoff experience here,” Bonnette said. “We have some obstacles to overcome. We didn’t lose a ton of offense, but what we did lose was a lot of toughness, leadership and commitment.”
Bonnette said that despite carrying a well-oiled offense, the Pacers remain committed to stymieing opponents on the defensive end. Hinsdale’s zone defense thrives with 5-foot-11 Angelina Nardolillo protecting the rim. The sophomore’s defensive stat line in last year’s championship game speaks to her strong defensive mindset as she amassed 12 rebounds and four blocks to help the Pacers nab the crown.
“As long as we’re playing tenacious D, we’re in every game,” Bonnette said. “That’s where I start and I’ll stay on them every minute about it. You can’t forego defense for scoring a basket. That’s where things always start for us and this group knows that.”
Nardolillo will be the focal point on offense as well, however, Delaney Wilcox will be a fixture in certain sets. Wilcox will be the primary point guard after playing off-guard last season.
Bonnette started four sophomores and a freshman in Friday’s opener at Sunapee.
Among the southern teams that will be in the contenders conversation is Epping, whose 16-2 regular-season run last winter was fueled by a team five freshman and just three seniors. Ed Meade will have a solid duo at guard with sophomore Emma Roussel and Oakley Lustenberger slated back to run the show.
Farmington could be in line to do damage down south as well. Having 1,000-point scorer Katie Martineau back is one huge shot in the arm, but there’s more firepower returning. Shannon Kobbe and Tatyana Long round out a nice senior trio with Martineau while junior Jiliiana Stevens and sophomore Chloe Weeks enter their seasons with good experience under their belts from last year’s 16-2 run.
Littleton, the 2017-2018 Division IV runner-up, will lead northern teams as four All-State selections return for Dale Prior’s club. Laney Hadlock was a first-team choice while Lexi Walker and Madisen Dumont were second-teamers and Jasmine Brown earned honorable mention.