Concord High caught a few teams by surprise during its postseason run to the Division I boys' hockey championship a year ago.
"We certainly got hot in the tournament," said Concord coach Duncan Walsh, recalling his team's run to the title as the No. 4 seed. "I don't think anyone thought Concord was going to win it."
The Crimson Tide's rink rivals won't be fooled this time around. The Tide is the preseason team to beat.
"You've got to start with Concord. They've got a lot of guys back," said Pinkerton Academy of Derry coach Casey Kesselring, whose Astros, as defending champs last season, were ousted in a wide open semifinal round that also featured Nashua's Bishop Guertin and Exeter. "They lost a key piece in (Division I Player of the Year) Kevin Marceau. But they have the Lacasse brothers back."
Pat Lacasse is Concord's top returning playmaker. Nick Lacasse leads a veteran defensive group. The twin brothers are among 16 of 20 returning players from the program's first title team since 1999.
"Goals are going to come harder than last year," Walsh said. "Last year, we had a dominant first line. There weren’t many games they didn’t get two or three goals. I don’t think we’ll get four or five goals (per game), but we might get two or three."
Concord's first line projects to be Pat Lacasse, the lone returning first-liner from last season, and Chris Acres and Pat Cannon. It's on the other end of the ice where the Tide has fewer question marks.
Nick Lacasse, Taylor Lebell and Dustin Walsh earned the bulk of ice time along the blue line during the 2009-10 campaign. Goaltender Brendan Garrett is also back from the surprise squad that ousted top-seeded BG, 4-3, in the semifinals and blanked No. 3 seed Exeter, 1-0, in the final.
"In my opinion, it's Concord, Hanover, Pinkerton and Bishop Guertin. Those are the usual suspects," Exeter coach Jim Tufts said. "But Concord is the defending champ. Their starting goalie is back, and those twins are really good."
In Division II, Dover is anything but a dark horse. The Green Wave have 11 seniors and 11 juniors.
Coach Steve Riker said he realizes expectations are quite high for his club. That's why he's keeping the regular-season goal quite simple: Finish in the top four.
"We haven't hosted a home playoff game in the last two seasons," said Riker, entering his third season behind Dover's bench. "Since I've been coach, we've finished fifth."
Cracking the top four could prove significant. Look for Oyster River of Durham, Spaulding of Rochester and Timberlane Regional of Plaistow to fight for the top seeds. And don't forget defending champion Bow, always a tough matchup.
Somersworth won't sneak up on its rivals in Division III. The Hilltoppers have roster depth and experience.
"We do have a good team," Somersworth coach Jamie Canney said. "But we had a good team last year, too."
Canney's team suffered a first-round ouster as the No. 3 seed. But he returns plenty of firepower. It starts with his son, senior center Jaret Canney. The league's co-Player of the Year as a junior, he scored a league-best 68 points. Jaret Canney will be flanked by Matti Doxter and Eric Tanguay on the wings.
Whether the young defense of the Hilltoppers matures quickly is a mystery. Two-time defending champion Kennett of Conway, Belmont-Gilford, John Stark Regional of Weare and Windham-Pelham appear best-equipped to take advantage of the favorite's perceived weakness.
It took many acrobatic shots -- some of them downright miraculous -- and, ultimately, double overtime to determine the Division I boys' basketball championship a season ago.
Pinkerton outlasted Winnacunnet of Hampton, 61-59. But much of the height that Pinkerton possessed is no longer on the roster, giving hope to several quality clubs.
The Astros will transition from a tall team to one that relies on quickness. Prepare for point guard Chad Park to push the pace and connect with Alex Patrikis, the team's tallest returning target.
Bishop Guertin has height. Forwards Connor Green and Sean McClung are at the top of a deep roster for the contending Cardinals.
Include Manchester squads Central, Memorial, Trinity and West in the conversation. Memorial may be the best of the Queen City's quartet thanks to the arrival of transfer David Madol (more on that in a moment).
Dover, Londonderry, Merrimack and Salem can't be dismissed, either.
Defending Division II champion Milford is poised to repeat. The Spartans return most everyone from their title team, including go-to guys Jamie Holder and Mike O'Loughlin. Pembroke Academy and Portsmouth are perennial contenders. Goffstown's drop to this division makes the Grizzlies great unknowns.
Don't be surprised if Berlin and Conant of Jaffrey again meet for the Division III title. Conant beat Berlin, 41-35, in last season's finale. The six-point decision earned the Orioles their fifth consecutive championship.
Groveton, as defending champ, is the team to beat in Division IV. Contenders include Derryfield of Manchester, Moultonborough Academy, Newmarket and Wilton-Lyndeborough.
SIMPLY THE BEST
Timberlane has Division I in a head-lock. Expect it to continue.
Under 25th-year head coach Barry Chooljian, the Granite State's premier wrestling program has won 17 Division I/Class L championships, including 11 in a row.
Timberlane's resume also includes 16 Meet of Champions titles (10 consecutive) and eight New England crowns (three straight and five of the last six).
Based on the talent Timberlane returns, it's safe to predict another very successful season.
The roster includes several state champions: Zach Bridson (103-pound king, now competing at 112), Will Smith (112-125), Matt Morris (130-135), twin brothers Nick Lawrence (160-171) and Nate Lawrence (171-160), and Ben Tammany (285).
"I have a veteran team that is certainly very talented. If we stay healthy, it will take a very good team to beat us," said Chooljian, whose career record is 402-41-5. "Our focus is always on ourselves, and how we can improve every day as a team and individually.
"The kids seem to understand very well that championships are won in the practice room," he added. "(They) have impressed me with their work ethic thus far this season."
Perennial contenders Concord, Pinkerton and Salem figure to be the toughest foes for Timberlane, already with five lopsided takedowns to its credit.
As they do annually, the Owls will compete in two upcoming prestigious meets. The first is the nationally known Beast of the East this weekend at the University of Delaware. Timberlane closes the calendar year with the Lowell (Mass.) Holiday Tournament on Dec. 29 and 30.
This season marks the debut of a third wrestling division.
ConVal Regional of Peterborough is the defending Division II champ. But Winnacunnet and Merrimack are contenders. Plymouth Regional, previously a power in Division II, is the pick to win the inaugural Division III title.
HISTORY ON THE HORIZON?
In the fourth year of NHIAA-sanctioned girls' hockey, Hanover has the chance to make history.
As the defending Division I champions, the Marauders seek to become the first program to win back-to-back state titles. On paper, they have the talent to do it.
Just juniors, twin sisters Madison and Tessa Hill each netted markers in last season's 2-0 championship clincher over Bishop Guertin. Classmates Hannah Lyons and Lauren Hoh anchor the blue line.
Leah Eickhoff, Courtney Mayers and Maddie Dewhirst offer additional front-line firepower, while goalies Emily Eickhoff and Kelly Gaudet provide experience in net.
A repeat -- and third crown in four campaigns -- won't come easy for Hanover. Little separates the Marauders from contenders BG, Lebanon, Oyster River and St. Thomas Aquinas of Dover.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL
For the first time in several seasons, it's difficult to predict which school will reign supreme in Division I girls' basketball.
That's because four-time defending champion Winnacunnet graduated several stars, none brighter than Boston College women's hoop recruit Tiffany Ruffin.
Of course, the Warriors are very much in the mix. Senior forward Sam Corcoran and junior guard Anna Sullivan return for coach Ed Beattie. The duo helped extend the program's state-best win streak to 53 games (48 in league play) with last year's title-clincher.
The last program to win five consecutive Division I (formerly Class L) crowns was Nashua from 1985-89. Current Londonderry coach John Fagula, whose Lancers should contend this season, was the architect of those Gate City powerhouse teams.
Varsity experience makes Londonderry and Manchester Memorial formidable.
Savannah Butterfield, Danielle Crutcher and Allie Maloney are the go-to girls for Londonderry. Butterfield, in particular, is a scoring and rebounding presence in the paint.
Amra Elezovic, Ashley Gendron and Allie Hartford give Memorial options. Elezovic and Gendron can be a terrifying tandem.
Paced by point guard Emilee Marro, Trinity of Manchester can't go overlooked. Same goes for reigning runner-up Pinkerton, led by lockdown defender Katherine Harris.
Teams to watch in Division II include defending champion Kennett of Conway and Oyster River.
Allie Wagner was a key piece to Kennett's title run. Oyster River is a threat to Kennett's throne, thanks to University of Maine women's hoop recruit Danielle Walczak.
In Division III, prepare for defending champion Conant and Campbell of Litchfield to again clash for the crown. The rivals have met in the final two of the last three years. Conant's Brooke Springfield, the league's two-time Player of the Year, and Campbell's Kristen Hrubowchak are among the tier's top talents.
Perennial Division IV power Groveton seeks its fourth straight championship. Senior guard Kelley Jo Collins and her classmate, Jessica Mckenzie, provide scoring threats along the perimeter and in the paint.
SAME CITY, DIFFERENT SQUAD
What's the best way to make an already fierce boys' basketball rivalry reach white-hot temperatures?
Watch the league's reigning Player of the Year swap sides. That's how.
David Madol previously dazzled Division I coaches, opponents and fans wearing a jersey for Trinity. But the 6-foot 6-inch, 185-pound senior will serve as Manchester Memorial's main weapon this winter.
"We're a pretty good team without him. He makes us a contender," Memorial coach Mike Fitzpatrick told the New Hampshire Union Leader. "He brings an all-around game. He's a tall kid with a lot of guard skills. He shoots the ball well. He handles the ball well. He drives the ball well. He can defend on the perimeter and block shots. There's not too much on the court he can't do."
Madol's change of plans -- and schools -- was unforseen. The 18-year-old was registered to attend Vermont Academy, a prep school in Saxtons River, Vt. Just before the academic school year started, however, Madol learned the financial aid he was set to receive didn't significantly reduce his tuition.
"I was kind of upset," Madol told the statewide newspaper. "I wanted to go to prep school to get my grades up. I want to play Division I basketball."
His options were simple. Return to Trinity, where he won a state title as a sophomore -- against Fitzpatrick's club. Or, play for the public school he'd otherwise attend.
The difference in the grading systems of the schools was a key factor in the senior's decision. Madol said Trinity's was tougher.
If Madol just duplicates his per-game production from last season -- 17.5 points, 8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks -- Memorial's foes will face a tremendous challenge.
Memorial visits Trinity on March 1, the second-to-last game of the Division I regular season. Mark it down.
FOOTBALL'S BIG WINNERS
Max Jacques was recently recognized as the Granite State's Goliath on the gridiron. Salem's 5-foot 6-inch, 160-pound senior halfback was named Player of the Year -- for the second consecutive season -- by both the New Hampshire Union Leader and Gatorade.
In three Division I varsity seasons, Jacques totaled a mind-boggling 5,737 all-purpose yards and 57 touchdowns. He surpassed 2,250 all-purpose yards for the second year in a row.
Jacques said his goal is to play college football for a Football Championship Subdivision program. He hopes college coaches won't be deterred by his size.
"If a school wants me and takes a chance on me, I'll give my best effort to that program," Jacques, told UnionLeader.com. "I'll make them happy they recruited me."
Lebanon's Chris Childs was named Coach of the Year. The fourth-year head coach led the Division IV Raiders to an 11-0 season and first NHIAA championship. He was also recently named New Hampshire's head coach for this summer's 58th annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl game against Vermont's all-stars.
New Hampshire rides a series-record 10-game win streak and boasts an all-time record of 42-13-2.
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.