Even if the Manchester Central girls’ soccer team had not won its second consecutive NHIAA Division I title last fall, 36th-year coach Peter Lally said opponents would still have his team circled on their calendars.
“It wouldn’t make a difference if we won or didn’t,” Lally said. “As long as it says Central on our jerseys, we have a target on our back.”
Central graduated nine players from last year’s championship team, four of whom were part of a defense that allowed 11 goals over the past two seasons. Lally will look to senior goalkeeper Jess Lewis and junior back Lena Robinson to lead a new-look Little Green defense. Lewis will serve as a captain alongside senior forward Katlin McIntire and senior midfielder Madison Tremblay.
Lally said it would be a mistake for teams to count the Little Green out because of their graduation losses but it does not seem the rest of the D-I field is doing so. Central, Londonderry, Exeter and Bedford are all expected to be in the title picture.
Central beat Londonderry, 5-0, in last year’s championship game and fans will not have to wait long for the rematch. The two will meet at Gill Stadium in Manchester next Friday, Sept. 6, at 6:30 p.m.
“They will fight you tooth and nail from start to finish,” 12th-year Londonderry coach Derek Dane said of the Little Green. “There’s no backing down, no backing off ... That’s the beauty of playing Central. You’re going to get a battle from start to finish.”
The Lancers return 15 players, including senior captains Olivia Stowell, Abigail Ellis, Gwen Barnes and Darby Dupuis, from last year’s runner-up team. Dane considers that returning group’s experience to be Londonderry’s biggest strength.
“This group knows what it takes,” Dane said. “Our biggest weakness is going to be how we deal with adversity. Last year, I think we trailed twice and we lost both those games … If and when that happens this year, how are we going to deal with it?”
Exeter 19th-year coach Megan Young has eight players returning from last year’s semifinal team. Among the Blue Hawks’ returners is senior goalkeeper Megan Olszwewski, who was an All-Division Second Team selection last fall.
“I think all eight of them got significant playing time and played big roles on last year’s team,” Young said. “We’ll look to them to carry on what we did last year into this season and hopefully they do that.”
Bedford coach Michelle Winning said the Bulldogs’ midfield will be solid and the team has some strong backs on defense. Bedford, which fell to Londonderry in the semifinals last year, will be led by senior captains MacKenzie MacEachern, Gabby DeAngelis and Ellie Flynn.
Concord, Merrimack, Pinkerton Academy of Derry are each coming off quarterfinal appearances and should be factors again this season.
Now in their second year playing in Division I, Windham and Goffstown should be improved. Windham went 5-10-1 while Goffstown went 6-8-2 last season. Windham coach Matt Bryant said the Jaguars will continue to be strong defensively and hope to create more scoring chances this fall.
“No game is a given,” Young said. “There’s certainly contenders all around.”
Coming off last year’s runner-up finish, Milford coach Russ Matthews knows he has a driven group of returning players.
Milford fell to Hanover, 1-0 on penalty kicks, in last year’s title game, which was the Spartans’ first final appearance since winning the D-II title in 2012.
“I think it’s a big driving force for a lot of those (returning) girls just because I think we feel the result should have been different,” Matthews said. “It is what it is, but they’re super motivated and I think the big thing for me is to use that as motivation but not to let them get sucked into, ‘We have to play just like last year.’
“Start fresh but with the same drive.”
Syd Thibeau, a junior and the team’s leading scorer last season, senior goalkeeper Jade Gregg and junior forward Aspen Tlapa will captain Milford’s young but experienced squad.
Milford should once again be in title contention alongside defending champion Hanover and last season’s other two semifinalists: Bow and Pembroke.
Bow entered last year’s tournament as the top seed after a 14-1-1 regular season.
Pembroke returns eight starters from last year’s team that went 12-1-3 in the regular season. Among Pembroke’s returners are strikers Cierra Hill and Jade Pescinski and midfield anchors Hannah Brown, Maddie Bailey, Anna Harlow and Hill’s twin sister, Britney.
“It’s not every year that we have the depth that we seem to have this year on this team,” Pembroke coach Jess Kaufman said in an email. “I’m looking forward to continuing to try out combinations of players and the success that comes with it.”
Matthews also expects Oyster River of Durham to be strong and thinks ConVal of Peterborough could surprise people. Oyster River fell to Hanover in the quarterfinals last year. ConVal went 5-8-3 in the regular season last fall but Matthews said many of its losses were by a close margin.
Manchester West will look to improve on last year’s 0-15-1 mark under new coach Fernando Martinez, who previously coached Trinity of Manchester. Martinez’ goal is to immediately improve the record the program has had over the past 10 years.
“Milford, Bow and Hanover all factor to be strong contenders in the division this year, but what I love most about this division is that so many teams can be competitive on any given day,” Kaufman said in an email.
Despite graduating seven starters from last year’s runner-up team, Stevens of Claremont coach Tom Belaire expects depth will be one of his team’s biggest strengths this fall.
With a core group of seniors that includes goalkeeper Fionah Carbee, back Alexis Aiken, forward Sydney Miller and midfielder Ellee Grenier and a good mix of young talent, Belaire feels confident in his cast of Cardinals.
“We have a lot of tough decisions on who to put on varsity because there’s a lot of young kids competing and we feel a lot of them are at the same level,” Belaire said. “So we feel we’re going to have depth this year at every position.”
Hopkinton defeated the Cardinals, 2-1 in overtime, in last year’s Division III championship game and is expected to be in contention again this year. The Hawks graduated eight seniors but had six freshmen and two sophomores on their championship-winning team last year.
“Hopkinton is always going to be there,” Raymond coach Tim Brusso said. “They’re a soccer town. They won last year. They’ll always be good.”
Brusso also expects Stevens and Campbell, which reached last year’s semifinals, will be in contention. With a good returning core of juniors led by forward Kathryn LaCasse, the team’s leading scorer last year, Brusso feels his Rams will be in the title hunt as well.
Raymond went 10-6 in the regular season before reaching the semifinals as the No. 8 seed last year. “We have really good team speed and a pretty good will to win, too,” Brusso said. “These juniors who were in middle school won the middle school championship and it’s a winning group.”
Like Raymond, Bishop Brady of Concord coach Andrew Mattarazzo said his team has a strong core of returners that include sisters and prolific goal-scorers Adrienne and Sheridan Brummett. The Green Giants are looking to improve on last year’s 12-4 regular-season mark and quarterfinal appearance.
“I think with our success over the past three seasons, these girls are now in the mindset to win and compete at the highest level,” Mattarazzo said in an email.
Mattarazzo predicted there are several teams in the division that have the ability to take the title.
“I think it is a very level playing field and there are a lot of teams who return key players from a year ago,” Mattarazzo said. “I would say there are probably six to eight teams that will have a legitimate chance to contend and make a run at the end of the year.”
Epping captured its first-ever state title last fall but not many of this year’s Blue Devils were part of that historic campaign. After graduating seven seniors from last season’s championship team, second-year Epping coach Meghan Fiore has had to reshuffle the deck with her program.
Epping has four returning players from last year’s team in sophomores Jenna Needham, who is currently sidelined with a knee injury, Jade Gagnon, Jacklyn Tracy and junior Abbie Roy. Fiore is looking to those four to help lead a young Blue Devils squad that will feature seven freshmen and some eighth graders.
“It’s certainly a rebuilding year for us coming off last year’s championship,” Fiore said. “Things are slowly starting to come together with them. It’s just changing gears from last year and getting back to basics.”
While Epping’s seven freshmen may be new to varsity play, Fiore is familiar with each of them. Fiore coached the middle school team before taking over the high school program. After losing her entire defensive unit from last year, Fiore will look to freshmen back Olivia Gosselin and freshman goalkeeper Payton Hull to lead that group. Freshman striker Madison Milliken will work alongside Epping’s returning four players to create offensive opportunities.
“They’re very close and the seven of them coming in together, the bonding part of it will help them fight through the trials and tribulations we’re going to face,” Fiore said of her freshman class.
While the defending champions rebuild, Newmarket, Sunapee and Profile of Bethlehem should challenge for this year’s D-IV title. Newmarket finished runner-up to Epping with a team that featured 11 underclassmen last year.
“They lost some talent but they have so much talent left behind,” Fiore said of the Mules. “They’ll definitely give people a run for their money.”
Sunapee went 14-2 in the regular season and entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed last year before falling to Epping in the semifinals. Profile went 13-2-1 in the regular season last fall and entered the playoffs as the third seed, but fell in the quarterfinals.
Players to watch: Abby Morgan, senior, back/midfielder, Merrimack; Erin Flurey, junior, forward, Manchester Central; Mackenzie MacEachern, senior, forward, Bedford; Olivia Stowell, senior, forward, Londonderry; Megan Olszewski, senior, goalkeeper, Exeter; Taylor Pierce, junior, back, Exeter; Jensen Casassa, junior, back, Exeter; Gwen Barnes, senior, back, Londonderry; Macy Graves, junior, back, Pinkerton; Alyssa Anderson, senior, forward, Londonderry; Autumn Nudd, senior, goalkeeper, Concord; Lea Baum, senior, back, Londonderry; Lela Connors, senior, back, Manchester Memorial; Daniela Vigeuras, senior, back/midfielder, Portsmouth; Lucy Tretter, senior, midfielder/forward, Dover; Meg Lord, senior, forward, Bishop Guertin; Darcy Wright, senior, back, Salem; Ari Dumaine, junior, forward, Nashua North; Morgan Lewis, junior, forward, Timberlane; Emilee Deleo, junior, back/midfielder, Nashua North; Jess Lewis, senior, goalkeeper, Manchester Central; Ashley Manor, sophomore, midfielder, Londonderry; Reagan Murray, sophomore, forward, Windham; Abby Irwin, freshman, back, Windham.
Key games: Londonderry at Manchester Central, Tuesday; Winnacunnet at Bedford, Tuesday; Bedford at Merrimack, Sept. 6; Nashua South at Manchester Central, Sept. 9; Winnacunnet at Pinkerton, Sept. 10; Bedford at Nashua North, Sept. 11; Concord at Exeter, Sept. 13; Bedford at Pinkerton, Sept. 17; Exeter at Portsmouth, Sept. 17; Merrimack at Portsmouth, Sept. 27; Londonderry at Pinkerton, Sept. 28; Concord at Portsmouth, Oct. 1; Nashua North at Nashua South, Oct. 5; Exeter at Pinkerton, Oct. 7; Bedford at Nashua South, Oct. 11; Exeter at Londonderry, Oct. 15; Manchester Central at Bedford, Oct. 15.
Players to watch: Sally Rainey, junior, goalkeeper, Lebanon; Taylor Burnham, senior, back, Bow; Pepper Joseph, senior, midfielder, Hanover; Charlotte Cousins, sophomore, forward, Oyster River; Calla Tucker, junior, back, Oyster River; Maddie Bailey, senior, midfielder, Pembroke; Cierra Hill, sophomore, forward, Pembroke; Britney Hill, sophomore, midfielder, Pembroke; Anna Harlow, sophomore, back, Pembroke; Tasha White, senior, forward, Hollis/Brookline; Syd Thibault, junior, forward, Milford; Aspen Tlapa, senior, forward, Milford; Riley Craft, senior, forward, Hanover; Amelia Brackett, junior, back, Coe-Brown; Abi Wilson, senior, back, Hanover; Meg Tupaj, senior, back, Souhegan; Sophia Killeen, senior, back/midfielder, Kennett; Paisley Broadhurst, senior, midfielder, Hollis/Brookline; Nathalie Pare, junior, forward, Oyster River; Savannah Behn, senior, forward, Souhegan; Madison Curran, junior, forward, Pelham.
Key games: Oyster River at Pembroke, Sept. 4; Oyster River at Bow, Sept. 6; Souhegan at Hanover, Sept. 12; Souhegan at Hollis/Brookline, Sept. 13; Kearsarge at Bow, Sept. 13; Milford at Hollis/Brookline, Sept. 16; John Stark at Pelham, Sept. 17; Milford at Bow, Sept. 20; Kennett at Merrimack Valley, Sept. 21; Oyster River at Hanover, Sept. 24.
Players to watch: Mackenzie Wagner, senior, goalkeeper, Campbell; Alexis Aiken, senior, back, Stevens; Karleigh Schultz, junior, midfielder, Campbell; Sheridan Brummett, sophomore, forward, Bishop Brady; Adrienne Brummett, senior, forward, Bishop Brady; Sana Syed, senior, back, Belmont; Ellie Owen, senior, back, Hopkinton; Katie Gagnon, senior, midfielder/forward, Belmont; Abi Jarvi, sophomore, forward, Gilford; Chelsea Cooper, senior, forward, St. Thomas Aquinas; Kathryn LaCasse, junior, forward, Raymond; Brynna Hone, junior, midfielder, Raymond; Hannah Reardon, senior, midfielder, Raymond; Brianna Connolly, senior, back, Somersworth; Makayla Waysville, senior, back, Fall Mountain; Reece Sadler, sophomore, midfielder, Gilford; Callista Carpenter, junior, midfielder, Gilford; Halee Bertolami, senior, forward, Monadnock; Mollie Durand, senior, forward, Inter-Lakes; Madison Bean, senior, White Mountains.
Key games: Gilford at Bishop Brady, Friday; Raymond at Campbell, Friday; Bishop Brady at Hopkinton, Sept. 4; St. Thomas Aquinas at Derryfield, Sept. 4; Inter-Lakes at Stevens, Sept. 5; Raymond at St. Thomas Aquinas, Sept. 9; Trinity at Hillsboro-Deering, Sept. 10; Belmont at Fall Mountain, Sept. 13; Hopkinton at Hillsboro-Deering, Sept. 17.
Players to watch: Zoe Norton, junior, back, Moultonborough; Ellie Frederick, senior, midfielder, Sunapee; Silvia Dalton, senior, back, Sunapee; Abby Polari, junior, forward, Sunapee; Nye Adamkowski, junior, back, Woodsville; Sadie Young, senior, back, Profile; Sage Smith, junior, midfielder, Colebrook; Olivia Sarkis, junior, midfielder, Woodsville; Abby Henry, junior, forward, Newmarket; Jasmine Brown, senior, midfielder, Littleton; Gracey Boucher, sophomore, goalkeeper, Moultonborough; Xena Bartlett, senior, goalkeeper, Lin-Wood; Sam Howe, junior, back, Colebrook; Nicole Berry, senior, back, Newmarket; Abbi Rich, senior, back, Lin-Wood; Elisabeth Jacob, sophomore, forward, Wilton-Lyndeborough; Sam Yurcak, junior, midfielder, Wilton-Lyndeborough; Madi Buteau, junior, forward, Gorham; Kristin Davis, junior, midfielder, Hinsdale; Sarah DuBois, sophomore, back, Moultonborough; Morgan Hock, junior, midfielder, Newmarket; Olivia Gosselin, freshman, back, Epping; Jenna Needham, sophomore, forward, Epping; Madison Milliken, freshman, forward, Epping; Sophia Sistachs, junior, forward, Wilton-Lyndeborough.
Key games: Newmarket at Epping, Friday; Littleton at Newmarket, Sept. 6; Moultonborough at Sunapee, Sept. 11; Epping at Ports. Christinan, Sept. 11; Hinsdale at Concord Christian, Sept. 14.
Littleton at Profile, Sept. 14; Moultonborough at Newmarket, Sept. 16; Woodsville at Profile, Sept. 24; Wilton-Lyndeborough at Sunapee, Sept. 26; Concord Christian at Wilton-Lyndeborough, Sept. 28; Newmarket at Sunapee, Oct. 3; Epping at Newmarket, Oct. 9; Newmarket at Portsmouth Christian, Oct. 15; Epping at Wilton-Lyndeborough, Oct. 16; Wilton-Lyndeborough at Littleton, Oct. 18; Sunapee at Woodsville, Oct. 18; Moultonborough at Portsmouth Christian, Oct. 21; Moultonborough at Epping, Oct. 23.