There was a time when, before the season's first face-off, predicting the champion in Granite State boys' lacrosse was a pointless exercise.
Even in the preseason, Pinkerton Academy always had the crown locked up.
The Derry program's rich lacrosse history dates back decades, well before the NHIAA sanctioned the sport in 1994.
Coach Brian O'Reilly – who began his 30th season April 12 with a 400-122 career record – led his Astros to the first four NHIAA titles from 1994-97. O'Reilly & Co. won eight of the first nine championships through the 2002 campaign.
But in the eight seasons since that time, the Astros have won just one title (2006). They last played for the Division I championship in 2008.
“We need to get back to where we were. That's been taken from us the last several years in lacrosse,” O'Reilly said. “We're not the defending champions. We haven't been the defending champions in a while.”
Yet the Astros are this spring's preseason favorite. They narrowly edge Nashua's Bishop Guertin High, the defending champ that's appeared in six consecutive league finals and won three titles since 2005.
It's unknown whether the Cardinals consider their preseason position a slight. But this much is clear: Depth in Division I is lacking this spring. Pinkerton and BG are the runaway favorites to clash for the championship in June.
“I doubt anybody is talking about us as a top team right now, which is fine by us. It gives us a little more incentive to work hard and be there at the end of the year,” said Exeter High coach Gerry Holly, whose reigning runner-up Blue Hawks rank behind Hanover High, the third-best club exiting the preseason.
Several teams, starting with Exeter, were senior-laden a year ago. Pinkerton was an exception. They boast experience, roster depth, speed, toughness and, perhaps most important, balance.
It starts with their attackmen, the strength of this year's club.
Cousins Tom and Jeff Auger combined for 66 goals and 22 assists a year ago. Conor McCarthy and Kyle Hanaway complete the senior quartet that can connect from anywhere around the cage.
Juniors Ryan Coombs and Peter Field provide Pinkerton with athleticism in the midfield – the area where BG has owned the edge in the latter half of the decade. Seniors Luke Somers and Tom Morini will also log crucial minutes.
Zach Tulley is Pinkerton's shutdown defenseman. The 6-foot 2-inch, 185-pound senior is a natural lefthander, making him an even tougher matchup for many of the state's talent righty attackmen.
Pinkerton also has depth between the pipes.
Junior Pearce Connal helped the Astros reach the Final Four last season. Senior Brian Elliot and sophomore Kenny Sturgess give the club three varsity-caliber stoppers.
Contributions must come from everywhere – and everyone – if the Astros are to bump BG from its perch.
It's no easy task.
The Cards again feature several Division I college lacrosse commits. Senior attackman Matt Thistle and his classmate, midfielder Erik Kelly, will play for Manhattan College. Junior attackman Alex Eaton is the latest Guertin talent whose commitment is to Lehigh.
As for a shutdown defenseman, BG has one, too. He's junior Bob Fahey (UMass-Amherst).
“We haven't lost a regular-season game in three years,” BG coach Chris Cameron said. “We want to continue to be at a very high level.”
If you're wondering, Pinkerton and BG play once this regular-season: May 16 on the Astros' home turf.
For 13 seasons, Londonderry High lacrosse coach Bob Slater has been a fixture on the sidelines for both the boys' and girls' programs. This season, his sixth guiding the girls, will be his last.
Slater turned the program from doormat to perennial power. The two-time defending Lancers open the season April 15 with a state-best 35-game NHIAA win streak.
The Lancers are again the team to beat. But considering they graduated considerable talent – Virginia women's lacrosse recruit Dana Boyle and Vermont recruit/New Hampshire Union Leader Player of the Year Marcie Marino come to mind – the gap between them and the competition has closed.
“At Londonderry, there’s pressure every year,” Slater said. “There's pressure to coach, pressure as far as living up to what we’ve done the last few years.”
Fifteen players return from last year's title team. Midfielder Jenny Thompson and Leah Walters, both juniors, are the go-to girls.
Sarah Austin switched from attack to low-defense, where she'll team with Amy Johnson, one of the state's best defenders. Crystal Parent, injured for half of last year's championship season, makes her return to the cage.
“We’ve got the biggest target because of the last two years,” said Slater, 81-18 in five seasons with the girls.
Pinkerton, the two-time reigning runner-up, and Amherst's Souhegan High have Final Four talent. But Concord High may be Londonderry's toughest competition.
The Crimson Tide qualified for the semifinals last season with a sophomore-laden squad. Now juniors, those players make the Tide a difficult matchup.
Concord's 17-player roster features 11 juniors.
Jenna Tewksbury and Jane Symmes are Concord's top juniors in the midfield. Senior tri-captain Caroline Connolly completes the trio.
The defense is anchored by five juniors: defenders Senneth Waterman, Rachel Gridley and Erin Mullen, and goaltenders Sky Stavros and Haley Schermerhorn.
“I like to think they have the potential to match up,” Concord coach Terry Anderson said.
Anderson, like the rest of the state, will find out in June.
STICKING WITH LAX
Division II boys: After several seasons struggling to crack the upper echelon of Division I, Souhegan made the decision to drop down. Several coaches believe the Sabers would have reached the Division I semifinals this season. They return eight starters, and they're strong on attack with veterans Brendon Laine, Zadek Burstein and Mike Van Sickle.
Division II girls: Fifteen starters return for Portsmouth High, which lost last year's title game, 10-9. Coaches consider the Clippers – led by midfielders Lauren Nevin and Eilee Foley, and defender Symonne Fontenot – the favorite.
Division III boys: Hollis/Brookline is led by 12 juniors. Many of them gained valuable experience in the team's run to the Final Four last spring. Goalie Alvaro Guzman and defenseman Brandon Rocha were elected captains. Both players are juniors, which gives a good indication that H/B has confidence in this class, and high expectations.
Division III girls: This tier is wide open. Hollis/Brookline had a stranglehold on the league, winning the previous two titles. But its move to Division I gives hope to several squads. North Sutton's Kearsarge Regional, the two-time reigning runner-up, looks good. Catie Blakeman, Lindy Heffernan, Avery Johnson and Kristen Von Svoboda give the club quickness.
Division I baseball: Defending champion Londonderry is poised to repeat.
Pitching is expected to power the Lancers, who'll send junior Dan Kinnon, sophomore Ryan Moloney, and senior closer Joey Hamilton to the mound.
"We are much younger than last year, but have just the right mix of experience to keep us competitive," Londonderry coach Brent Demas told the New Hampshire Sunday News.
Reigning runner-up Salem High should challenge again. Southpaw Nick Poore, who'll play for Boston College, throws to Northeastern-bound backstop Josh Treff.
Division I softball: Superpower Salem, a 16-time champion since 1981, has five hurlers it can send to the circle. Stephanie Cabral is included in the quality pitching quintet.
Division II baseball: Three-time defending king Portsmouth is the talk. The Clippers opened the season with a state-best 63-game win streak (64 after their 7-1 win over Kingswood Regional of Wolfeboro April 11).
Homer (Mich.) High set the national record with a 75-game win streak that ended with a title-game loss in 2005, according to the New Hampshire Sunday News.
The Seacoast squad features Division I college baseball talent at the top of its rotation. Keegan Taylor is heading to Northeastern. Aidan O'Leary is Manhattan College-bound.
Division II softball: Coe-Brown Academy of Northwood returns ace pitcher Corinne LeMauk to help defend the team's 2010 title.
Division III baseball: Winnisquam Regional of Tilton, the defending champion, returns pitching ace Jordan Cote. He tossed his third career no-hitter as a junior in last year's title game.
Division III softball: This may be the year Franklin High's four-year reign ends. Litchfield's Campbell High didn't lose a single starter to graduation. Those returning include Julia Nolan, who started the season 19 strikeouts shy of 400.
Division IV baseball: Lisbon High, Colebrook High, Manchester's Derryfield School and Pittsburg High should fight for Division IV supremacy.
Division IV softball: Woodsville High is another defending champion that returns its ace. Katie Davis again makes the Engineers a threat.
Julia Keenan, a junior at Dover's St. Thomas Aquinas High, is the top-ranked girls' tennis player in the state and No. 5 in New England, according to the United States Tennis Association. She is attempting to win her third consecutive NHIAA singles crown, a feat last accomplished from 1986-88.
Alex Burbine, a senior at Londonderry and Mark Hosang, a Bedford High junior, are the state's top-ranked talents in boys' tennis. Burbine reached the final of last spring's singles tournament.
The track and field circuit isn't short on talent, either.
A small sampling of standouts includes sprinters Jerickson Fedrick (Salem) and Cathy Liebowitz (Lebanon); distance runners Jeff LaCoste (BG) and Samantha Hicks (Laconia); and jumpers Jahmar Gathright (Nashua North) and Hillary Holmes (Exeter).
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read his blog, "New Hampshire GameDay" and follow him on Twitter @marc_thaler.