Last year was an excellent year in Division II girls basketball. It was a very deep league, with 12 teams who were all VERY good. It is not often that you can go 11-7 in the regular season and only be the #12 seed in the tournament. That was the case for John Stark, who were led by Katie Cullerot (now playing at Assumption) and advanced to the Final Four with wins over Hollis-Brookline and Merrimack Valley.
You had 3 dominant teams in Souhegan, Lebanon and Kennett. Each of those teams was good enough to win a title if it was any other season. But only one of them could win it, and that was Souhegan who went undefeated thanks to the title game heroics of Jane White.
It was also the senior season for one of the NHIAA's best players in recent memory - Danielle Walczak from Oyster River. The 6'1" forward won 2 Player of the Year Awards and is now playing at the University of Maine.
I wasn't lying when I said last season was a good one in D-II. Look at this list of talented seniors who all graduated, just from this division: Cullerot, Walczak, Allie Wagner (Kennett), Melissa Frase (Kennett), Megan Hardiman (Merrimack Valley), Susie French (Portsmouth), Sara Romano (Lebanon), Christan Wojtas (Souhegan) and Emma Rosen (Hanover).
Still, even with that being said there is still plenty of talent this year in D-II, especially on the top 5 teams who are as good as any team in D-I outside of Winnacunnet. All 5 of the top teams have a legit shot at winning the title come March. Here's a look at those 5 teams, plus the other teams we expect to finish in the division's top 15.
1) Souhegan - They're the favorite to repeat as champions. Souhegan went undefeated en route to the title last year, their starters this year all got MAJOR minutes on last year's championship team and they return the best player in the division (and possibly in the entire state) in senior point guard Jane White.
Souhegan winning the title last year was a great story. They were expected to be a contender in the preseason, but I'm not sure anyone expected them to go undefeated. At one of the team's first practices senior guard Taylor Cordts suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire season. Post players Ceara McNamara, Tori Forrest and Lauren Cordts all missed games during the season due to injury. The team had a first year head coach in Jeremy Faulkner. And in the title game they had to come back from an 18-4 1st half deficit. They came THIS close to getting knocked off in the quarterfinals by Windham, in semis by John Stark and in the final by Lebanon. But they ended up winning all of those games. Coach Faulkner did a great job of getting the girls to play hard and as a team even with all the injuries.
White carried Souhegan to the title, leading the comeback in the title game and eventually hitting the game-winning three-pointer with under a minute left. The 5'5" guard will be playing her college ball at Division II Bentley University, alongside former Manchester Central standout Christiana Bakolas. White knows how to use screens to get a step on her defender to go to the basket or to create space for her outside shot. She's fast, she's a tough defender, she's a smart player and she's a winner.
Due to all of the injuries they suffered last year Souhegan actually had 7 girls who started multiple games and got LOTS of playing time. Only 2 of those 7 graduated (Wojtas and Lauren Cordts), so essentially the Sabers return 5 starters from a team that went undefeated (including the division's best player in White). The other 4 are 6'0" senior forwards McNamara and Forrest and wing players Ashley Tighe and Mickenzie Larivee. That gives Souhegan 4 seniors in the starting lineup, and while Larivee is only a sophomore she plays with the poise of a senior.
McNamara and Forrest really compliment each others games nicely. McNamara is a finesse player. She's a face-up forward who can can step outside and hit shots from 18-20 feet away. That leaves room in the paint for Forrest to operate. Forrest is a power player, who uses her size and strength to bully opponents on the block, she's a VERY good rebounder and has solid post up moves inside. Both players missed quite a few games last year due to injury, so the key for them is just staying healthy. If they do then the Sabers might just go undefeated again this year.
Tighe is a the prototypical role player. She gets in perfectly with this team, she goes to the rim hard off the dribble and can hit the mid-range shot, is a very good defender. Larivee is a natural athlete and for a sophomore she is very strong physically. She has a good all-around game, but really excels when running the floor in transition and hitting mid-range jumpers off the catch. Both Tighe (softball) and Larivee (lacrosse) are star players in other sports, but on the basketball court they are very capable role players for this team. Look for junior guard Bailey Gendron to possibly be the team's 6th man. She gained valuable experience last year when filling in for injured players and hit some big shots in the regular season game vs. Lebanon.
2) Windham - The Jaguars have literally EVERYONE back from a team that 12-7 last year before BARELY losing to Souhegan in the quarterfinals. They have a preseason all-state first-teamer in Kerry White, and 3 other very dangerous players in sophomore point guard Clairee Putnam, junior guard Kelsey Schiebel and junior wing player Bernadette Connors.
Considering last year was only Windham's first year as a varsity program the success they had was also a great story. Head coach Joe Mason did a great job with the team. He had a very young team and one that was not very deep, but he turned them into a winner.
The Jaguars used a 7 player rotation last season, with the other 3 key players being senior forward Ashley Adamson, sophomore forward Brianna Angelini and junior guard Amanda Schiebel (Kelsey's twin sister). Not only are all 7 of them back this season, but they also welcome in a very talented freshman in 5'7" 2-guard Madalina Jeans.
White is a 5'11" senior forward who is a dominating inside presence. She can score inside and rebound at will, and she can also step outside and handle the basketball or shoot it from 18 feet away. She's as good as any player in D-II besides Jane White (no they're not related!).
With Putnam and Kelsey Schiebel, Windham has a par of guards who are both capable of playing the point, they're both VERY fast, they can both shoot the basketball and can handle it as well. However, Putnam did recently suffer an injured hamstring. Coach Mason wouldn't comment on the sverity of the injury. But while hamstring injuries do tend to linger on the recovery time is typically just a couple of weeks so Putnam isn't likely to miss many games, if any. Connors is a versatile 5'9" wing player who can score inside or out and really came on strong towards the end of the season last year.
I like the balance that Windham has, between the inside and outside, with the stars and the role players. They are still fairly young, but they gained valuable experience last year by beating Portsmouth on the road in the playoffs and then taking Souhegan to the wire.
3) Hollis-Brookline - This is another team that returns A LOT of talent from a team that won A LOT of games last year. They went 15-3 last year and they would have been even better but starter Jillian Gillis missed much of the season with a high ankle sprain. She's healthy now though, as is the rest of the team. The Cavaliers return 4 starters and 8 varsity players. This year they have 6 seniors and 5 juniors on the roster.
Hollis is led by their "Big 4" which is their all-senior back court of Katie Stopera, Kelsey Berry, Olivia Gillis and twin sister Jillian Gillis. They're all fast, they can all handle the ball, they can all shoot it well and they all get after it on defense. They've also been playing together as a group for a LONG time, and they are very unselfish, looking for each other on the court and setting each other up for good looks.
This team is at its best in a fast paced, transition game. hey like to pressure the basketball defensively, force turnovers and get out and run. Berry is the point guard and does a nice job of setting her teammates up but and knowing when to pass and when to look for her shot - she does a nice job of taking what the defense gives her. Stopera is a 2-guard who can slash to the basket, hit shots and really excels in an up-tempo game. She's also a cross-country star, and you can tell because on the basetball court she just runs and runs and runs and never seems to get tired. The Gillis twins (good luck telling them apart!) are tough, hard nosed wing players who rebound, shoot and defend very well.
Other returning varsity players for Hollis are seniors Sam Zorn and 6'2" forward Rachel King and juniors Ellie Flaum and Kellie Messer. King gives the team size and an inside presence, whole Flaum is a quick guard who can shoot the basketball and has really improved a lot. She had one game over the summer when she had about 18 points.
4) Bedford - The Bulldogs are yet another team that has A LOT of talent returning this season from a team that won A LOT of games last year. They went 11-7 in the regular season before falling to Walczak and Oyster River in the playoffs in a nail-biter. Bedford returns 9 players off that team, including the most talented sophomore class in the state, regardless of division.
"Bedford will move up to Division 1 after this season, but they have a chance to grab a title before they go" said one D-II rival coach.
Leading the way is that aforementioned sophomore class, aka the "Fab 5." There's 6'1" forward Mckenzie Brown, 5'8" guard Rachel Collins, 5'11" guard/forward Ali Glennon, 5'8" guard Bailey Marshall and 5'10" forward Haley Driscoll. Bedford is moving up to Division I next year, and in 2 years when these 5 girls are all seniors they might still go undefeated even in D-I, they have that kind of potential.
Brown has good low post moves but is at her best when facing up to the basket from about 15 feet away and either hitting the mod-range jumper (with her patented set-shot) or putting the ball on the floor and going hard to the rim. She's also a very good rebounder and for a big she's also a good passer. Collins is a prototypical 2 guard - she can shoot it, moves well without the basketball, is quick, defends, passes well and finishes in transition. Glennon has a ton of upside due to her size at 5'11" and being able to play inside or out. Brown, Collins and Glennon all play on the same NE Crusaders AAU team, so they basically play together on the same team year round. Marshall is an athletic guard with a good handle and pull-up jumper, while Driscoll is a very strong player physically and is one of the division's best rebounders and defenders.
Another player who is very good is junior gurd Maggie McGown. She's a slasher who uses her strenght and nifty hesitation dribble moves to get to the rim and either make the shot inside or draw a foul. She's also a good rebounder for a guard. With the 5 sohomores and McGown Bedofrd has 6 girls who would start for pretty much any team in the state - the scary part is none of those 6 girls are seniors which means this team will be VERY good next year.
This team does have 3 seniors though, as Nicole Marinelli, Hayley Barnard and Lyndsie Barnett will provide depth for a team capable of going 9 players deep.
This is a deep, talented team. The 2 weaknesses are that they are a young team since they rely so heavily on sophomores, and that they don't technically have a point guard. It will probably be either Collins or Marshall, but both of them are better suited for the 2. Bedford also has a new head coach in Sue Thomas, who was the assistant coach under previous head coach Scott Sarsfield.
5) Lebanon - Ok, so Lebanon would obviously be higher in these rankings if Trina Scheie was healthy (they were #2 when I updated the rankings over the summer). But as most folks know by now, Scheie suffered a torn ACL playing soccer and will miss her entire junior season. She did have a breakout year last season though as a sophomore, when she recorded 20+ points and 15+ rebounds in both the semi-final and the championship game.
"Our kids are motivated" said Lebanon head coach Tim Kehoe. "I think they think everyone has counted us out because of the injury to Scheie. We will see."
To be fair, I really wouldn't be surprised if Lebanon ended up as the #2 team in th division. The top 5 teams are all VERY close talent-wise, and Lebanon typically doesn'tplay as many tough games as the southern teams. Lebanon will still be a VERY good team this year even without Sheie. I saw them play at the Oyster River Jamboree and they blew out Pinkerton, which is a potential top 5 team in Division I. Still, they only have 1 returning starter and they have jsut 2 seniors on the roster.
Colleen Taylor, Moriah Morton, Emily Kehoe (Coach Kehoe's daughter) and Taylor Friedman all gained valuable experience last season as either starters or key reserves. All 4 of them will be looked upon to score more points in Scheie's absence. Taylor is a 5'9" senior who has a good inside-outside game, Morton gave up soccer to focus striclty on basketball - she's a lightning quick wing player who defends well, slahses to the rim and is a great team player. Friedman and Kehoe are both scrappy guards who can shoot the ball well and really get after it on defense as well.
One of the division's most improved players is 5'11" sophomore forward Heather King, who takes over in the post with Scheie out of the lineup. King is much stonger physically and more skilled tha she was as a freshman, when she saw very limited playing time. The 6th man this year for Lebanon is sophomore guard Sam MacDonald who Coach Kehoe says would start for 99% of the teams in D-II.The other returing varsity players are Hannah Gariepy, Megan Hess and Leanna Travis, while Chelsea Dow and Vanessa Fleury give the Raiders a pair of promising freshmen.
It will be a blast this winter watching those top 5 teams battle it out for D-II supremacy!
6) Coe-Brown - Outside of the top 5 teams, Coe-Brown is definitely the team that has the most people around the division talking.
"Look for Coe-Brown to be the sleeper" said one D-II coach. "They were good last year and have everyone back, a transfer, and from what I understand a motivated new coach."
Coe-Brown returns 11 of their 12 varsity players from last season, they have a transfer in Yvonne Dean-Bailey who comes over from Portsmouth Christian Academy and a new head coach in David Hartnett. Hartnett is best known for coaching the Exeter Hawks AAU team to a top 15 placing in the AAU National Championships for 3 straight years (2007, 2008, 2009).
I got a chance to see Coe-Brown play in person during fall league action. They're a tema that plays an up-tempo style, they look to run on offense and pressure teams on defense. Coach Hartnett preaches fundamentals and team play to his girls.
"Our top scorers should be seniors Meredith Grady and Allura LeBlanc" said Coach Hartnett, whose daughter Megan Hartnett transferred from Winnacunnet to Tabor Academy over the summer. "Meredith is capable of from scoring anywhere on the floor, while Allura may be one of the best post players in the state."
Senior guard Olivia Daigle is the team's point guard and also anchors the defense. Senior forward Meghan Ahern will tea up with LeBlanc to provide a nice 1-2 punch inside for the Bears. Dean-Bailey, Kelly Turner, Liz Peabody and Brier Brooks are also key players who return and will add depth to a team that has been working very hard so far in practices and scrimmages.
7) Portsmouth - I got a chance to see Portsmouth and their new head coach Dan Parr when they scrimmaged Dover the other night. They will definitely be a team in the kix fr a home playoff game, no question about it. Senior guard Markey Flewelling is ready for a big year as both a scorer and distributor of the basketball, Faith Jenkins was the team's 6th man last year but has gotten better and will now take on a biggr role on the team as she is more than capable of scoring 10-15 points on a given night. Returning starter Christina Jones is an atheltic wing player who hustles all over the court and completing the starting 5 is atheltic forward Devon Parker and physical post player Madeleine Nossiff, who is one iof the division's best shot blockers. Adding depth off the bench are sophomore guard Phoebe Collins and 6'2" junior center Alicia Brown.
8) Kearsarge - Kearsarge scrimmaged Oyster River the other night, and it was a pretty even contest with Kearsagr coming out on top. The Cougars went 13-5 last year when they relied heavily on the play of guards Brittney Page and Morgan Church. Well, both of those players are back, and with Page being a senior and Church a sophomore and with 9 other returnign varsity players it's clear that if there's a year for Kearsarge to make a run this is it.
9) Oyster River - The Bobcats will try and replace the best player in the state regardless of division in Danielle Walczak. They're hoping sophomore forwards Claire McCarthy (6'3") and Claire Salmon will be able to fill the void inside, but they have big shoes to fill (literally!).
The strength of the team is the play of guards Kelsey Brown, Riley Maynard, Izzy Gorham and Eliza MacDonald. Maynard is a tough point guard, Gorham is one of the state's best defeners and Brown is a tough match up with her size (5'11") and ability to hit shots and drive to the basket. All 4 of these girls are returning starters for head coach Dave Nichols, who led Oyster River to state titles in 2003, 2006 and 2009.
10) Merrimack Valley - A light schedule made their record look better than it was last year (same is true for Kearsarge), and the same will likely happen this year as well. Still, this is a solid team with key returning players in Mary Mullen, Molly Mullen, Jordan Filion and Bekka Donovan.
11) Kennett - They will sorely miss having Allie Wagner, Melissa Frase and Sam Meader in the lineup. That was the trio that led the team to the D-II championship in 20101 and a semi-final appearance in 2011. Now it's rebuilding time for first-year head coach Larry Meader, who will look inside for production from players like Lauren White, Lauren Kidder, Kaitlin Taylor and Casey Blakely.
12) Hanover - Senior forward Kate Gautier is a very good player, and fellow senior Asie Makarova is another returning starter. Hanover also has one if the state's best freshmen in 5'9" wing player Julia Daniell. Some nice pieces, but this is a very young team and head coach Dan O'Rourke's squad is in a rebuilding year.
13) Milford - The Spartans were a very young team last year (3 freshmen and 3 sophomores, 2 juniors and 3 seniors on the roster) and a first year head coach in Steve Signor. Wtih a year under their belts this is a team ready to surprise a lot of people, led by junior standout Dina Pitsas.
14) John Stark - They had a great run in the tournament last year, making it to the semis where they almost beat Souhegan. Cullerot carried that team though and she graduated. Fellow starters Allison Harris and Erica Vaillancourt also graduated and long time head coach Wayne Thomson retired. The 2 starters who are back though are juniors Rebecca Titcomb and 6'1" Jillian Gilman who are good enough to keep this team competitive,
15) St. Thomas - Another rebuilding year for St. Thomas. It was less than 2 years ago when STA took an unbeaten Lebanon team to 4 overtimes in the state semi-finals. But then they graduated a lot of good seniors, like EC Chojnicky, Caleigh MacDonald and Melissa Carpel. Now they graudated their all-state player from last year in Lyndssy Davis, so it is another rebuilding year for head coach Sabrina Payeur. 2 players to watch out for though are senior guard Gretchen Anderson and junior forward Meaghan Flynn.
NH Notebook All-State Team
First-team: Jane White (Windham), Kerry White (Windham) Katie Stopera (Hollis-Brookline), McKenzie Brown (Bedford), Colleen Taylor (Lebanon)
Second-team: Moriah Morton (Lebanon), Ceara McNamara (Souhegan), Kelsey Berry (Hollis-Brookline), Meredith Grady (Coe-Brown) Markey Flewelling (Portsmouth)
Preseason Player of the Year: Jane White (Souhegan)
Championship Game Prediction: Souhegan over Windham