Here's a look at the teams and players to watch out for this winter in NH girls basketball.
Londonderry is the 2-time defending champs. They went 20-2 last season, with their only 2 losses coming on buzzer-beaters. The question is, will they repeat? The Lancers are definitely one of the favorites, but a third straight title will be tough with the transfer of 6-foot-2 forward Ashley Berube. Berube was a Player of the Year candidate last season as a junior, but suffered a torn ACL in a late season win over Exeter. She then transferred to the Tilton School, where she will repeat her junior year. Here are the top 10 teams in D-I:
4) Bishop Guertin
6) Nashua North
10) Nashua South / Salem / Dover
Bedford has to be the preseason #1. Londonderry, Winnacunnet and BG are all very close behind, though. Bedford returns all 5 starters. They have 12 of their 13 players back from last year, including possibly the best back court in the state with point guard Bri Purcell and shooting guard Nikki Tucci. These two have grown up playing together, they know where they other one is going to be and they feed off each other well. Between high school and AAU they have played in more high level games than most of the other teams in the state combined. If you're a fan of high school basketball (or if you're skeptical that the girls game isn't as good as the boys) go watch Bedford sometime this season.
Not only does Bedford have Tucci and Purcell, they have the best starting lineup, 1 through 5 in the state which also includes 5'11" Courtney O'Connell (committed to University of Albany for volleyball), 6'0" Jenoyce Laniyan and Maddie Blake up front. They also have a strong bench which includes players like Alexis Meservey, Mia Roy, Alyson Filion and Rachel Widrig who all saw valuable playing time last season.
Londonderry is right there behind Bedford in our preseason rankings. You know how I said Bedford has possibly the best back court in the state? Well that's because the Lancers' Jackie Luckhardt and Kelsey Coffey is pretty darn good too. Londonderry and Bedford met twice last season. Coffey was absolutely on fire in the first game, and Luckhardt was the best player on the floor in the second contest.
Also returning in the back court for the Lancers are seniors Kate Balcom and Katherine Wells, who were both valuable contributors to last year's title run. Londonderry has very good guards, but the question marks could be up front. Not only do they lose Berube to prep school, but they also graduated 6'0" Brittany Roche and 5'11" Tara Burke. Luckily for coach Theos he has a freshman coming in who could help to fill some of that void in 6'2" Ashley Evans, the younger sister of Casey Evans, who is now playing college basketball.
Winnacunnet made a Cinderella run to the finals last year as a #9 seed, but they won't be sneaking up on anybody this season. Their three best players are all back, including 6'0" Meg Knollmeyer, 5'11" Kaya Cadagan and senior point guard Katie Valcich. Knollmeyer is a scholarship player and a preseason Player of the Year candidate. Also returning is Emily Britton, who hit the shot that sent the Warriors to the finals last year. Jennifer Freedman should provide back court depth as a sophomore.
BG is another team that is loaded with talent and could make a title run. Their two best players are back from last year (junior wing Meghan Cramb and senior point guard Marie LaPlante). It's no coincidence that the top 4 teams in our preseason rankings have the four best point guards in the division (Purcell, Luckhardt, Valcich and LaPlante). Cramb is a very good all-around player. BG graduated Megan Kerutis, Sarah Shields and Alissa Zajac and lost Abby Streeter to prep school, but they have 8 girls coming back who were rotation players last year (Cramb, LaPlante, Molly Dee, Abbi Field, Bri Nordengren, Sara Sherburne, Meghan Donovan, Caroline Hoffer). This team has size, they have depth, they have speed and they have ball handling.
Watch out for Alvirne, they're right in the mix too. They could easily beat any of the above teams on any given night. They're unselfish and play hard. Leading the way for returning players are bigs Amanda Wetmore Marissa Sweeney and Nicole Teague (all juniors) and guards Jessica Baker, Emily Ratte and Samantha Ratte. The Broncos were just a shot away from a Final Four berth last year, and they have most of their top players back.
Nashua North is also a dangerous team. They graduated last year's D-I Player of the Year Taylor Choate, but the rest of the team is back. That includes slasher Dezi Okorie and sharpshooter Sara Cordova, which will be one of the top duos in the state. Also back are Isabel Dunning and Choate's little sister Alana - both were valuable contributors last season. Coach Oliver always has this team well prepared, and they should once again be a top 8 team.
Trinity could be a team on the rise. They only went 6-12 last season, but they only graduated one senior. Senior point guard Ashley Hill, Hannah Fabiano and Shannon Roberge could all be in for all-state seasons, while Elizabeth Graveline, Eireann Kolden and Danielle Mackey were all rotation players last year. Also watch out for freshman point guard Maddy Haynes.
Pinkerton and Central would both be higher up in the rankings, but they both had key players leave for prep school. Pinkerton loses guard Nicolette Arnold to Lawrence Academy and Central loses Angelique Ngalakulondi to Proctor Academy. Both were freshmen last year. Arnold picked up a D-I scholarship offer over the summer, while Ngalakulondi is also a scholarship level prospect. Pinkerton does have 2 returning starters in Marissa Stacy and Sara McLeman, while Central returns Amanda Gaudreault, Devin Lacroix and Jenna Chrabalowski. Two other losses to key Central players are Sydney Richard (transferred to prep school) and Sara Swetland (injury suffered during soccer season).
It was a dream season last year for Coe-Brown, who went undefeated and won the D-II title. It was a great team and a great group of kids who worked hard, coming back from a heartbreaking loss in the finals the year before. They had a target on their back all year and they never slipped up, not once.
However we will likely have a new champ this year, as Coe-Brown graduated their entire starting lineup. Here's a look at who the new champ might be:
The 2 favorites are seacoast rivals - Portsmouth and Oyster River. Portsmouth is led by junior guard Libby Underwood, who has already accepted a scholarship to play college ball at Providence. Oyster River is led by senior forward Sara Messler, who is headed to Saint A's. Underwood and Messler are the preseason favorites for D-II Player of the Year.
Not only do Portsmouth and Oyster River have the 2 best players in the division, but most of the supporting cast for Underwood and Messler also returns. The Clippers' 'Big 3' is Underwood, Heather Durand and Sadie Shore. All 3 are capable of scoring at least 15 points on any given night. Lily Hardy missed much of last season to injury, but she gives the Clippers a fourth returning starter and more size. Messler's supporting cast meanwhile includes players like Rose Tarvainen, Gabby Spang, Caitlyn Miller, Sarah Sherman and Samantha Walker. These 2 teams meet on opening night, and even though it's an early season game it should give us a quick indication about who the favorite is.
Goffstown is also a team to be reckon with. The Grizzlies gave mighty Coe-Brown all they could handle in the D-II finals last year and the Grizzlies return four starters. Leading the way is lights out spot-up shooter Katie Howe, young but savvy floor general Sarah Doherty, scrappy guards Hannah Larochelle and Molly McQueeney. All four of them can shoot it from the outside, so watch out.
Pembroke made a run to the Final Four last season and they could be headed back there. They have good size up front, with seniors Karli Loiselle and Maddie Allen both returning. Look for Loiselle to have a 1st team all-state type of season. Other returns who were contributors on last year's Final Four squad include sophomore forward Morgan Allen and guards Olivia Langevin and Briana Connolly.
Bishop Brady graduated their best player in Sarah Thomas, but look for 6'2" sophomore forward Sam Will and junior guard Riley Bennett to form one of the better duos on the division. Wing Kenzie Moulton and forward Shannon Drouin were also key players last year who are back.
Hanover and Lebanon will also be in the mix, and you can count on that being the case as long as Tim Kehoe (Lebanon) and Dan O'Rourke (Hanover) are coaching. 2 of the better coaches in the state. Hanover returns wing Caroline Merguerian, and has incoming freshman Silke Milliman. Lebanon has a pair of talented junior in 5'1" Jojo Wainwright and Meredith Melendy.
Other teams who could be dangerous include Timberlane, St. Thomas, Windham and Souhegan. Timberlane sophomore point guard Brooke Rooney could take the league by storm this winter, while her back court teammate Alicia Ruth can flat lout shoot the rock.
Windham has most of their team back, including rebounding machine Casey Dinga, exciting sophomore guard Kaleigh Walsh, strong defender Amanda Carey and versatile guards Kelsey Kendzulak and Hannah Klassens.
St. Thomas will have one of the divisions best duos, with senior forward Ashley Coneys and senior point guard Reagan Williams. Souhegan returns most of their top players, and they could get a breakout season out of sophomore guard Mia Len.
Conant won the title last season, going undefeated. They are once again the favorites. Conant not only returns their best player, they return the best player in the division and the best player in the entire NHIAA - senior guard Madison Springfield - committed to Holy Cross.
Conant's title defense is made tougher by the fact that their second best player, point guard Eva Hodgson transferred to the Hampton school. The Orioles also graduated shooting guard Katie Chadbourne. However 2 key players who are returning to help Springfield out are 6'0" forward Sarah Gonsalves and guard Megan Wheeler. That 'Big 3' is enough to make them the favorite.
Pelham was the only team who played Conant tough all year last season, so they are out preseason #2 team in D-III. The Pythons returns a strong core, including Jessica Lessard, Lily Shlimon and Danielle Sirois.
Gilford went 21-1 last season and has a strong core coming back. Fall Mountain and Newfound should also be dangerous as well. Also watch out for Somersworth, another team capable of a Final Four run this year. Their senior guard Emily Francoeur might be the best player in the division who isn't a member of the heralded Springfield family.
Sunapee is the hands down favorite. If they don't repeat as champs it will be a shocker. They have the two best players in the division with Lexie Hamilton and Katie Frederick. Both are future college players. Frederick had a monster game in the finals last year, while Hamilton has a terrific all-around game. Sydney Clark and Faith Larpenter also return, giving the Lakers a 'Big Four' no one else in the division can match.
Colebrook gave Sunapee all they could handle in the finals last year. Watch out for them, as well as Groveton, Littleton and Hinsdale.