Things will be a little different at the top this year in D-II girls basketball. Bedford would have been a serious contender, but they moved up to D-I. Kearsarge was last year's runner-up and they moved down to D-III. Souhegan has won back-to-back titles but they graduated 4 starters. Hollis-Brookline (went 17-1 last year) and Coe-Brown also suffered heavy graduation losses.
It all means Lebanon is the favorite to win it all, but even the Raiders suffered a couple of losses prior to the season which will make their quest for the title more difficult. Keep reading to find out more.
The favorite is...
1. Lebanon - ok, so I have written about the Lebanon girls team quite a bit over the off-season. Here is an article about how Trina Scheie and Taylor Friedman are not playing this year, and a look at the players who will be stepping up in their absence.
Here is an article breaking the news of Moriah Morton's commitment to Dartmouth. Morton is your preseason Player of the Year in D-II. She is the best defender in the state, regardless of division.
No girls basketball team in the state plays as a unit more during the spring and summer than Lebanon. They went 7-0 at a team camp at Franklin Pierce College, they beat a Pentucket squad out of Massachusetts over the summer which beat Bishop Guertin. They play together during the summer and their core players also played on the same AAU team together in the spring - the Lebanon Voltage.
In addition to Morton, the Raiders have two other girls who are virtual locks to be all-state selections this year with senior guard Emily Kehoe and junior forward Heather King. And look for breakout years from junior guard Samantha MacDonald and sophomore center Vanessa Fleury.
The other top contenders are...
2. Merrimack Valley - the Pride showed they can play with the big boys (or big girls) at this summer SNHU Summer Slam when they beat Trinity and only lost by 2 points to Londonderry and Memorial. MV returns their 3 best players, 4 starters and 5 of their top 6 players off a team that went 15-3 last year. So yeah, they'll be pretty good this year.
Coach Raycraft's team is led by their 'Big 3' of senior point guard Jordan Filion, senior forward Rebekka Donovan and junior forward Mary Mullen. All 3 of them will likely end up being somewhere on either the first or second team for all-state. On any given night any one of the 3 could be the team's best player, which makes it tough for opposing teams to game plan against them.
In addition to Donovan and Mullen, this team has even more size up front with 5-foot-10 senior forward Jordan Neylon and 5-foot-9 senior forward Molly Mullen. They might not be as fast as teams like Lebanon, Windham, Coe-Brown or Portsmouth, but MV's inside game is as good as anybody's in the division. Joining Filion in the back court is 5-foot-9 junior Olivia Thurber.
3. Windham - how could you forget about a team that won 15 games last year, blew out #1 seed Hollis by 20 points in the quarterfinals, made it to the D-II semi-finals and this year returns 3 of their top 4 players? The Jaguars must be in the conversation when talking about the state's top girls basketball teams.
Head coach Joe Mason has done a great job with this program. This is only the third year they've had a varsity team - they made the quarterfinals in year 1 and they made the semi-finals in year 2 - that kind of a start is simply unheard of for an athletic program in this state.
This year look for Windham's 'Big 3' to be seniors Bernadette Connors and Kelsey Shiebel and junior Clairee Putnam. All 3 of them are guards, so look for this team to get out and run, unless they are playing Lebanon and especially if they are playing MV. These 3 girls have all been starters for 3 years now, so they have plenty of experience playing together. All 3 of them should be up there on the all-state teams too. Look for Lebanon, MV and Windham to have most of the all-state players in D-II this year.
Windham also has other strong players, like junior forward Brianna Angelini and Amanda Schiebel (Kelsey's twin sister). That is a very talented group of girls to build a team around, and with a coach like Joe Mason there's no question Windham will make some noise this winter.
"We lack height, but we will focus at playing as one" said Coach Mason. "Our goal is to play hard, play together, play smart and have fun."
These next four teams will also be very dangerous...
4. Coe-Brown - in their first year under new head coach Dave Hartnett, Coe-Brown went from an 8-10 team that got bounced in the first round of the playoffs to a team that went 16-4 and hosted a quarterfinal playoff game. And while the Bears might not be quite as good as they were last year (they graduated their four best players in Meredith Grady, Allura LeBlanc, Olivia Daigle and Meghan Ahern), they still might end up being good enough to make a Final Four run.
Coe-Brown has two returning starters with senior forward Elizabeth Peabody and junior guard Sadie Steffen. Senior wing Brier Brooks was a valuable player off the bench last season and now takes on a bigger role. Most impressive of all is the fact that their JV team went a perfect 22-0 last season. The JV was led by forward Jen Schlim and guard Debbie Peabody. Both of them are now sophomores and ready to now make an impact on the varsity.
Look for this team to push the basketball on offense and press on defense - that's Hartnett's style.
"Our kids played at Stonehill College and Rivier during the off-season" said Coach Hartnett. "They were competitive at both venues. I can certainly can see a big upside with this team despite its age. My group of Sophomores have been playing together since grade school. Once they our comfortable with our system of playing basketball I believe we will be very competitive in our division. I think Jenny Schlim and Debbie Peabody have a chance to emerge as two of the best plays in the State in the next 3 years."
5. Portsmouth - the Clippers are right in the mix for a top 4 seed if they can stay healthy. They actually beat Merrimack Valley the other night in a scrimmage so clearly they are playing well heading into the season.
Portsmouth has a strong starting 5 but is still trying to develop the bench. Junior point guard Phoebe Collins, senior forward Devon Parker (who will play LAX at Syracuse) and senior guard Christina Jones are all returning starters. Jones is a third-year starter, Collins is a smart, fundamentally sound player and Parker is a tough slasher and rebounder.
Rounding out the starting 5 is 6-foot-2 senior center Alicia Brown and junior guard Tighe Loch. Both players are much improved and playing well heading into the season.
6. Milford - no other basketball team in the NHIAA will make as big of a jump in the standings from last season to this one as the Milford girls. They didn't even make the playoffs last season, but this year they will likely host a playoff game. That's quite a jump!
The Spartans return their top 7 players, including preseason first team all-state pick Dina Pitsas. Outside of Moriah Morton, there is no better player in D-II than Pitsas. She does it all - sets up the offense, defends the opponent's best scorer, rebounds, scores from the outside or inside. And her little sister Adelle is also a very good player too. The other three returning starters for head coach Steve Signor are Jen Dupuis, Jess Ryan and Brianna Hoffman.
7. Hanover - the Marauders have been a little down for the past couple years, but they have won 5 state titles and made 7 finals appearances since 1996. They have had very inexperienced teams for the past couple years, but this year they return 3 starters and they only graduated 2 players from last year's squad. They should be a top 8 seed once again for at least the next 3 years.
Leading the way is sophomore guard JJ Daniell. Daniell is one of the top players in the state from her class. She's a tough defender and on offense she can score off the dribble or from the outside. Juniors Eileen Daley and Hannah Seibel return to the starting lineup, while Erica Hinck and Holly Schlosser both saw valuable minutes off the bench last season.
"You can't count any team coached by Dan O'Rourke" said one D-II rival coach.
Don't sleep on these teams
8. Souhegan - they're the winners of the last two D-II titles, but it's no secret that this team graduated A LOT of talent. 4 starters are gone, including their 3 best players and D-II Player of the Year Jane White.
So what's left? Well, Mickenzie Larivee (committed to play LAX at BU) will be one of the top players in D-II. Then you also have junior forward Cammie Lavertu and senior guard Bailey Gendron, who the Sabers' top two reserves last season. Add in junior point guard Devon Hickey and you have a solid core to the team. Hickey is a transfer from Londonderry who played AAU for the NE Shooting Stars team which was coached by Souhegan coach Jeremy Faulkner.
9. Goffstown - 10 girls are back from a team that went 10-8 last year, including sophomore guard Tori Florence.
10. Hollis-Brookline - another team that got hit hard by graduation losses, Hollis will definitely not be as good as they have been for the past couple of years. But they will still be respectable, led by the senior tandem of guard Ellie Flaum and forward Kellie Messer.
11. Oyster River - one thing we know for sure about the Bobcats is that they will be big. 6-foot-3 junior Claire McCarthy and 6-foot-1 junior Claire Salmons are back, and now they are joined in the lineup by 5-foot-11 freshman forward Sara Messler. Messler is one of the top freshmen players in the state and figures to make an immediate impact.
Preseason All-State Team
1st Team - Moriah Morton (Lebanon), Dina Pitsas (Milford), Bernadette Connors (Windham), Rebekah Donovan (Merrimack Valley), Emily Kehoe (Lebanon), Mickenzie Larivee (Souhegan)
2nd team - Ellie Flaum (Hollis-Brookline), Devon Parker (Portsmouth), Clairee Putnam (Windham), Mary Mullen (Merrimack Valley), Heather King (Lebanon), Kelsey Schiebel (Windham), JJ Daniell (Hanover), Jordan Filion (Merrimack Valley)
Preseason Player of the Year - Moriah Morton