BY NOW you’re probably familiar with many of the key players who will take the field for Saturday’s NHIAA Division I and Division II championship football games. All that’s needed to identify these players are their last names: Harris-Lopez and Ackerman from Nashua North; Henault and Picard from Goffstown; Manning, Jain and Lawhorn from Souhegan; and Bannon and Johnston from Plymouth.
The best teams are made of more than star power, however. A championship team’s roster is filled with essential role players and other lesser-known standouts. These are guys who don’t make it into the paper very often, if at all. Their last name is not enough.
With help from the four head coaches, we’d like to introduce you to some of the unsung players who will undoubtedly have a say in who wins the Division I championship game between Nashua North and Goffstown, and the Division II championship game between Souhegan and Plymouth:
Nate Belanger; Jeremy Henault
Belanger, a senior, is a three-year starter at center. He has also played all three positions on the defensive line this season.
“He’s really the leader of that unit (the offensive line),” Goffstown coach Nick Hammond said. “They kind of go as he goes. Tremendous leader. We haven’t had a snap issue — knock on wood — all season. He does a great job in the run game. He does a great job in pass pro. He sets pass protection for us. He does all those little things that go unnoticed.”
Henault is overshadowed by his brother Jarrett, who is Goffstown’s starting quarterback. Jeremy is used as a multi-purpose player on offense — he’s even Goffstown’s backup QB — lines up at safety on defense, and is on every special teams unit.
“This kid is flying under the radar,” Hammond said. “For my money he’s the best long-snapper in the state.
“We are nowhere near this game without those two kids.”
Zach Maszczak; Liam Novak
Despite being undersized (5-foot-7), Maszczak is North’s starting center. He was the team’s starting center last year as well, but, like North quarterback Curtis Harris-Lopez, Maszczak sustained an season-ending injury before the 2019 playoffs arrived.
“He tore his ACL last year and it was a big loss that got overshadowed because Curtis got hurt,” North coach Dante Laurendi said. “He’s consistent with his snaps, he’s fast off the ball. Very smart kid. Sets the line because he can make all the calls. He’s come back and rehabbed from that injury and is doing a great job for us.”
Novak, a senior, is a two-way lineman who has improved significantly since his junior season.
“He contributed a little bit last year, and this year he’s a two-way starter,” Laurendi said. “He’s playing well. Very smart. He’s a guy who has really stepped up and filled a void.”
Garrant, a junior, was the MVP of Souhegan’s junior varsity team last season. He starts at outside linebacker and has been a valuable player on special teams as well.
“He doesn’t get a ton of recognition, but he’s a vital part of our team,” Souhegan coach Robin Bowkett said. “Setting the edge is huge in high school football and he’s done a great job at that. Riley Lawhorn plays the other outside linebacker, so teams think, ‘We’re just gonna run it at the other kid.’ But he’s done a great job of understanding leverage and being a force player on run. He gets off blocks.
“He’s done his job and he’s done it at a high level, and maybe with all the other guys on our defense he doesn’t necessarily stick out, but he’s a guy on film that we keep talking about as coaches. He’s been a huge help for us there (at linebacker), and I think he has our most special teams tackles. He’s just been a missile on kickoffs.”
Wheeler, a defensive end, didn’t attend Plymouth Regional until this year. He’s a senior who joined the Plymouth football program despite having never played a down of football before this season.
Wheeler is a defensive end, but he doesn’t start. His value comes as a member of the often-overlooked scout team.
“Just a kid that has brought a great energy to practice,” Plymouth coach Chris Sanborn said. “He doesn’t play a ton. He’s on a couple special teams, but it’s not always about getting on the field or being a starter. Every week he has to learn the other team’s offense, the other team’s defense and he’s just done an amazing job. The key to winning is your scout team and the look they give you. Those are the kids who put you over the top.”