It is now time to preview the 2012-2013 high school basketball season in Division II. Portsmouth won the title last year but graduated their whole starting lineup, while runners-up Bedford moved up to D-I.
So that leaves Pembroke as the favorite. They have had their 'Big 3' of Rene Maher, Patrick Welch and Matt Persons together for 3 years now. With Maher and Persons being seniors, this is the last chance for talented trio. Will they finally get the job done? Or will Brandon Len and Souhegan or David Hampton and Lebanon be the last ones standing in March?
The road to a championship begins on Friday night!
The favorite is...
1. Pembroke - in girls Division II Lebanon was the hands down favorite over the summer, but then two of their better players decided to not play this season and focus on others sports instead. As a result, the Lebanon girls are still the favorites but the gap between them and the rest of the division is now much smaller.
It's a similar situation with the Pembroke boys squad. Over the summer they were considered to be head and shoulders above the rest of D-II. But then two of their top 6 players transferred to other schools, as Sophomore wing Andrew Houde is now at Newport High and junior guard Brad Rhoades is now at Trinity. Pembroke is still the favorite to win this division, but it definitely became a more difficult task with those transfers.
They might not be as deep now without Houde and Rhoades, but the bottom line is Pembroke's 'Big 4' is better than any in the state, regardless of division. Those four players are junior guard Patrick Welch, senior guards Rene Maher and Matt Persons and junior forward Jordan Williams.
They are just a run-and-gun, fast-breaking team with a ton of offensive weapons. They space the floor and run the drive-and-kick offense to near perfection. Point guard Rene Maher (a four year starter) is the catalyst of the drive-and-kick offense. He is very tough to stop off the bounce, and for a little guy is also a strong finisher inside. If you collapse on his dribble-penetration though you better not leave Pat Welch open, because he's the best shooter in the state and will make you pay. Welch is arguably the best individual player in the NHIAA. He can hit shots from all over the floor, off the catch or off the dribble. He's quick with a very good handle, and has averaged 20+ points during both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Matt Persons can also shoot it from the outside. So if Maher is driving, and you have Welch and Persons on the wings ready to catch and shoot, how are you supposed to defend that? Opposing D-II coaches will have sleepless nights this winter trying to find an answer to that question. Not only do you have to worry about those three, but then inside you have to worry about Jordan Williams. Williams is a tough rebounder and inside player. Sophomore forward Dominic Timbas provides depth off the bench. These guys play together year round - with PA in the winter and with the GS Raiders AAU team in the off-season.
The other two top contenders are...
2. Souhegan - Pembroke is the heavy favorite to win the D-II title, but if anyone beats them it will likely be either Souhegan or Lebanon. Souhegan is led by senior point guard Brandon Len, who is a preseason Player of the Year candidate in D-II (Pat Welch is the other). Len dropped a whopping 50 points in a single game vs. Milford in this year's BST Summer League. The scary thing is, he's an even better passer than he is a scorer. Souhegan returns 4 starters from a team that won 17 games last year, with the other returning starters being bruising forward Jake Kennedy, athletic guard Tyler Ford and sharpshooter Zach Simmonds. Not many teams in D-II will be able to match up with that 'Big 4'.
3. Lebanon - it was another year and yet another winning season for Coach Matte and his Lebanon Raiders in 2011-2012. They went 11-7 last season but this year they are even better. David Hampton is a kid who doesn't get a lot of publicity outside of the Upper Valley but he should be. He's a 4 year varsity player, a 3 year starter and this year he will be scoring his 1,000th point. He will be a first team all-state player in D-II this winter and maybe even a Player of the Year candidate. He is far from a one man show, as Hampton combines with fellow senior Matt Cowles to form one of the best duos in D-II. Cowles is 6-foot-4 forward who was playing the best ball of his career towards the end of last season. He has the potential to score 15+ points and grab 10+ boards every time he steps on the floor, and we all know Hampton can shoot it from anywhere and score 20+ points on any given night. Hampton and Cowles are very good, but they have plenty of help, as Lebanon returns 6 of their top 8 players off last year's team. Senior guard Vincent Guerin and junior wings Nic Shepherd and Dominick Morrill all return after playing key roles on last year's team. Also adding depth is junior guard Kalin Sou, a quick player who plays tough defense.
After that top 3, it's WIDE open...
4. Bishop Brady - The Bell brothers, Jourdain and Joe are a couple of names that you will be hearing about a lot over the next few years. Jourdain was one of the top freshmen in NH last season, and Joe is slated to do the same this year. Add in senior forward Stephen Desmarais and you have the makings of a team that will get out, run and win a lot of games. Look for Brendan Johnson and Gary Clark to also play key supporting roles for the Giants.
5. Hanover - Hanover once again has a squad capable of being a top 5 team. They a strong feeder program and a coach in Tim Winslow who teaches the fundamentals as well as anybody in NH. That's why even when they graduated guys like Sam Carney and Dan Gorman they can still be a top 5 team. The Marauders have a strong core of four players who all played valuable roles on last year's Final Four Team in forward Cyrus Rothwell-Ferraris, guards Ryan O'Rourke and John Flory, and wing Liam Gantrish. Look for each of them to step into bigger roles this season and have this team once again winning a lot of games.
6. John Stark - Stark returns their two best players from a 10 win team from a year ago. Those two players - 6-foot-8 center Zach Grattan and 5-foot-7 point guard Nic Lloyd are both potential first or second team all-state players. They're both seniors and have been playing together fr a long time. Grattan has improved a lot since last season and with very few players in this division that are his size he could dominate most nights. Also look for senior forward Nicolas Simeone to also play a key role in the paint.
7. Windham - this could be the surprise team of the division. They carry a lot of momentum with them from football season, and this is a group that really digs down on defense and has also been playing together for a long time. They only graduated 2 seniors from last season, and have 3 returning starters. Look for junior wing Andrew Lowman to have a breakout season as he can score inside and out. Joe Lorenz, David Carbonello, Alex Whitehead, Conor Redmond are all capable of making big plays, while Tucker Lippold, Matt Shamon and Tyler Masone add depth. These guys play hard, they're tough and they do a nice job of working the ball around on offense to find a good shot.
8. Portsmouth - with their top 6 guys from last season all graduating and one of their top returning players out for the season with an injury (Jack Mackey) it will be a very difficult task for Coach Mulvey to have this team back in the finals. Portsmouth is seemingly ALWAYS in the Final Four, however this is probably the least amount of talent and experience they had in at least 5 or 6 years. Still, Mulvey is a heck of a coach and always gets the most out of his players. And they played some solid ball over the summer. They had one of the best JV teams in the state last year and will look for those guys to step up on the varsity now. Look for Ben Landry to be go-to guy now, and be supported by Travis McDonald, Patrick Glynn and Devon Wilson-Miles.
9. Pelham - the Pythons were about a .500 team last year, and they graduated 4 of 5 starters. It would be understandable for them to drop a little bit now. But at the same time these guys play a lot of ball together in the off-season (most of it against teams from Massachusetts who are faster and more athletic than the teams they face here in NH). Look for junior guard Jake Vaiknoras to have a big year, and for freshman Keith Brown to also make an impact. Alex Newton, Kevin Cheam, Joe McArthur and Brad Pomerleau all got significant playing time last year as well.
10. Goffstown - you can pretty much guarantee that Goffstown is always going to be at least a top 10 team every year in D-II. First off, they're the biggest school in the division. Secondly, they just always have a lot of athletes at that school, and always have good depth and lots of kids who can shoot it. This year they have one of the top shooters in the state in senior guard Jake Mount. Mount was raining threes for these guys two years ago as a sophomore - that was the year they had a bunch of games where they scored 100+ points. He has only gotten better since then, and he teams up with junior guard Tim Riehl who is a good slasher and tough defender.
11. Merrimack Valley - MV has a potential first team all-state player, so considering that can't see them finishing any lower than this. There is so much parity after the top 3 teams in the division that I wouldn't be surprised if MV finished anywhere from 6th-12th (same thing with Hollis). It seems like MV's senior wing Andrew Alicea is flying under the radar. But the according to former MV head coach Rich Otis, Alicea is one of the top 5 players in D-II. Alicea missed 8 games last year with an injury, but look for him to have a big senior season. Also look for solid seasons from guys like guard Dylan Baer and forwards Joey Brochu and Ryan Head. The Pride will get better as the season goes on, as they get used to playing under new coach Sean Young and without former point guard Ryan Otis (transferred to Trinity).
12. Hollis-Brookline - a lot of people have bee talking about Hollis being a team on the rise. They have a good coach in Mike Soucy, they have 8 players back from last year and a solid duo in Connor Walsh and PJ Flaum to lead the way.
13. Coe-Brown - they will slide a little bit, after graduating four starters. But at the same time they had a lot of injuries last season, so guys like Josh Jackman, Chris Laurion and Damon Doyle all had to step up. Now those three guys will have to carry the load, but they will be better prepared to do so after all the experience they got last season.
14. Oyster River - after a tough season in 2011-2012 when the Bobcats missed the tournament for the first time in a LONG time, they have the sights set on a return to the playoffs. They have 9 guys back from last year, and a potential all-state player in Anthony Shea to lead the way.
15. St. Thomas - look for the Saints to once again be a playoff team, as they have one of the division's better players in senior wing Jon Nartiff.
Preseason All-State Team
1st Team - Patrick Welch (Pembroke), Brandon Len (Souhegan), David Hampton (Lebanon), Jourdain Bell (Bishop Brady), Zach Grattan (John Stark), Rene Maher (Pembroke)
2nd Team - Matt Persons (Pembroke), Matt Cowles (Lebanon), Andrew Alicea (Merrimack Valley), Jake Mount (Goffstown), Jake Vaiknoras (Pelham), Andrew Lowman (Windham)