Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summertime Snapshot: D-III Football

We continue our Summertime Snapshot Series with a look at Division III football. With football season fast approaching we will be looking at Divisions III through VI over the next few days.

With the realignment this year D-III loses one of its best teams (Bedford) who were replaced by a team that has struggled in D-II for the past couple of years (Alvirne). The divisions will only be aligned this way for 2012, because in 2013 the NHIAA will be moving to a 3 division system.

Bedford would have been the preseason favorite if they were still in D-III. But they're gone, so who's the favorite now? Well a couple weeks ago I would have said Goffstown, but their star WR/DB Chris Garrison is transferring to football powerhouse Lawrence Academy.

So that means there is no clear cut favorite, at least for now. What we have is a division that's a little down this year, and 3 teams capable of winning the title (Portsmouth, Souhegan and Goffstown). Here's a brief look at each of those 3 teams.

The Clippers are the defending champs, and have made the D-III title game for four straight years. They crushed Bedford in the championship game last November 41-6 and they have enough talent coming back from that team to make another run at it.

Rick Holt is one of the most feared lineman in the state. He is a senior and so is fellow lineman Kurtis Leonard. Holt and Leonard were both all-state players last year and will form a dominant duo in the trenches. The play of their d-line is a HUGE reason why they won the title last year and that will once again be one of Portsmouth's strengths.

Jack Mackey was one of the biggest breakout players in D-III last season. Mackey did it all for the Clippers - catching passes as a slot receiver, running the ball on draw plays, dropping back into coverage on defense or creeping up near the line to stop the run. And on special teams he was a very dangerous return man. Mackey is also now a senior and should once again be in for a big year.

Another receiver to watch out for is senior Colin MacDonald, who is also one of the division's top punters (along with Tyler Ford from Souhegan). And while they will miss the explosiveness of Billy Lane (now playing at Plymouth State) coming out of the backfield, other returning play makers include Dillon Crosby, Peter Hamblett and Donovan Phanor. Phanor was also a valuable player in the defensive backfield last year for the Clippers.

They also graduate their quarterback Billy Hartmann, but that hasn't been an issue in the past. Portsmouth has had a different QB in each of the past four years and they have made the title game each of those four years. This year the new QB will likely be senior Travis MacDonald, who was Hartmann's backup last year.

Yes, it definitely hurts Goffstown's chances that Chris Garrison is leaving for prep school. The kid was hands down one of the top sophomore players in the state last season, and was a big time impact player for the Grizzlies on both sides of the football. But this team went 7-1 last season and they have enough talent that is coming back to make another run at it.

For starters they have their best player coming back in QB Connor Benjamin. Benjamin was the first team all-state QB in D-III last year as a junior and is hands down the best QB in the division this season. He is a dual threat with the ability to run or pass for big yardage at any given time. He has good size and strength for the QB position which makes him tough to bring down in the open field and also has great breakaway speed.

It also helped Benjamin last year to have weapons like Garrison, RB Peter Shea and WR Mike O'Donnell. And while Garrison is gone, Shea and O'Donnell are back. They're both seniors, as is Benjamin.

Goffstown does graduate two all-state players off their offensive line in Chris Behrens and Zack McCormick, which will definitely hurt their chances. But returning to the line are Greg Brunette and Connor Wynn, plus WR Alex Duval and LLB Kyle Iningaro are also back and ready to take on bigger roles.

One other thing to consider with this team is their coach. In head coach Justin Huft's first season with the program Goffstown went from a team that didn't even make the playoffs in 2010 to a 7-1 record and the #1 seed in the playoffs in 2011. Yes, you have to give a lot of credit to the players for the turnaround. But Coach Huft has turned around the culture of football at Goffstown - now they expect to win.

The Sabers missed the playoffs last season even though by the end of the season they were playing better football than anyone in the division except Portsmouth. They ended the season on a 5 game winning streak, including a 36-14 win over Bedford in the last week of the regular season. They had a lot of first year starters and it took them a few weeks to gel together. And in most years a 5-3 division record is good enough to make the playoffs, but not last year when you had 4 teams with 2 or fewer losses.

Prior to last season Souhegan had won 3 consecutive D-III titles. They'll try to get back to that level but it won't be easy. They have to replace some very good players, like Chris Chininis, Tim Beliveau, QB Rob McCormick, Brandon O'Connell, Terry Dugdale and Jason Doheny. Just like in 2011, the Sabers will once again have a lot of first year starters.

Fortunately for Souhegan they have a coach in Mike Beliveau who simply does not lose football games. The guy has built a great program in Amherst. Not only do they win games, and titles year after year but every year they send as many if not more kids to go on to play college football than any other school in the NHIAA. Plus, the current head coach at Bedford, Merrimack, Hollis-Brookline and Goffstown are all former assistant coaches at Souhegan under Beliveau.

Plus the Sabers have the best player in the state in lineman Jake Kennedy. The 6-foot-4, 290 lb. beast has scholarship offers from New Hampshire and UMass Amherst already and more Division I schools are sure to follow. He will help open up holes for Souhegan's skill position guys, as well as clogging up the middle defensively and getting after the opposing QB.

Also watch out for the athletic Tyler Ford and the tough Seth Learned. Ford is a speedy play maker who was an effective wideout last season but may need to play QB this season with McCormick graduating. If he does look for him to be a dual threat as both a runner and a passer. Ford is also one of the state's top punters which definitely helps with field position. Learned got some good playing time last year as a RB on offense and a LB on defense. Between Divisions I, II and III he was the only freshman in the state who started for a winning team.

Other key players coming back are the speedy Denny Dessureault and OL/LB James Ewing.

Who Gets the 4th Playoff Spot?
Either Hollis-Brookline, Milford or Alvirne. All three teams have made the playoffs in recent years. Hollis has made back-to-back playoff appearances, but they graduate virtually every starter they had last season. Milford missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 3 years, and Alvirne was a playoff team in D-II in 2009.

But Alvirne really relied heavily on their stud play maker Tony Beaulieu last year (who graduated) and they still only won 2 games in the division.

Hollis does graduate most of their talent, but two returning players who are very good are WR/DB Mitch Frick and lineman Will Holmes. These two guys along with Joe Albina from Milford will be 3 of the better players in D-III this year. And Coach Robinson from Hollis and Coach Jones from Milford are both hard nosed guys who get the most out of their kids.

It should be interesting, but if I had to pick I'd say Milford gets the #4 seed, Hollis finishes 5th and Alvirne 6th. If there's a surprise team this year though it will be Pembroke. While the Spartans have struggled in recent years they have some good young talent coming up.

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