A year ago, underclassmen-laden Pinkerton Academy wasn't supposed to win its 10th Division I football championship since the celebrated 1985 season. But the young Astros, facing foes with far more experience, beat those odds.
This time around, the odds of repeating are overwhelmingly in their favor.
"Our focus doesn't change at all, even when we're not the favorites," Pinkerton head coach Brian O'Reilly said. "We simply strive for championships. That's our goal, otherwise it's not a successful year."
Quite simply, there isn't a more complete team, at present, than the one residing in Derry.
The Astros return almost everyone. Twelve of the team's 20 seniors are returning starters.
Bulldozer Kevin Davies and speedy Emmitt Smith are the focal points of Pinkerton's Wing-T offense. But there's also junior quarterback Chris St. Onge and sophomore Manny Latimore that round out the returning starting backfield.
Andrew Curran, exclusively a top-line defensive back in 2010, will reprise that role this season. But he's expected to earn touches on offense, too.
On a team stacked with superb athletes, Ryan Coombs could prove most dynamic. The 5-foot 11-inch, 178-pound senior kicks, punts, catches passes and patrols the defensive secondary.
“He's a big-game player. He can be a difference-maker. He's got some outstanding athletic ability that other kids do not have,” O'Reilly said of Coombs. “He just turned 17 for his senior year. He really doesn't come off the field.”
Linebackers Branden Rodgers, Davies and Matt Madden, last year the team's second-leading tackler as a freshman, were huge reasons the Astros excelled in red-zone defense. The linebacking corps added depth with the return of Matt St. Onge, sidelined in '10 with an ACL injury.
Understandably, the Astros were unanimously voted No. 1 in the preseason edition of the fourth-year statewide poll, a joint effort involving the New Hampshire Union Leader, WGAM-Radio and WMUR-TV.
Based on history alone, Pinkerton is the preseason pick.
Since O'Reilly's fabled Ryan Mihalko- and Joe Segreti-led 1985 team surprised everyone to win it all (the program's debut season in Division I) the Astros have always won championships in chunks.
The Astros went back-to-back in 1985-86, copped four straight crowns from 1991-94, and rattled off a three-peat from 2005-07.
But don't talk championship pep rally with O'Reilly just yet. Pinkerton's 34-year head coach knows a grid king isn't crowned in the preseason.
“We might be pegged as favorites. But we weren't pegged as favorites last year – and we won,” he said. “Our focus is 'Don't allow newspaper clippings to influence hard work.'”
MORE FOOTBALL FAVORITES
Division II – Nashua's Bishop Guertin High is under new leadership. But BG, seeking its seventh title in eight seasons, is still the top team.
Former Manchester West head coach Travis Cote replaced Tony Johnson, who stepped down over the winter. School officials wanted Johnson to focus fully on his job as athletics director.
Bob Fahey, a first-year starting QB, is running BG's new offense. Cote installed the Wing-T, a change from the spread-option attack used by Johnson.
Fahey is a 6-foot-2, 200 pound senior – and a scholarship men's lacrosse recruit for UMass. He's just one of many weapons, which also include playmakers Brody Smith (SE/DB) and Jimmy Carver (RB/DL).
Division III – Amherst's Souhegan High is the three-time defending champion. And though the Sabers only return two starters to their pass-happy spread offense, they've proven in the past that roster turnover isn't a problem.
Robby McCormick is Souhegan's third starting quarterback in as many years. The senior finally leads the offense after accomplished QBs had their turns the previous seasons. Chris Chininis is a serious threat out of the back field, particularly on screen plays. He is also a tremendous threat on punt and kick returns. Denny Desserault, a difference-maker in last year's three-peat clincher, also projects as a top target.
Souhegan has the chance to match former rival Plymouth (2000-03), the only team to win four straight Division III crowns since the league's inception in 1957.
Division IV – Manchester's Trinity High lost last year's final after building an early lead. The Pioneers have the personnel to dictate play, win playing their style and, ultimately, erase a bitter taste.
Josh Hughes and Ryan Carrier are power rushers in Trinity's double-wing offense. Adam Chambers adds the element of quickness. First-year starting QB Carmen Giampetruzzi, just a sophomore, has a strong left arm capable of connecting with 6-foot-7 tight end Andrew Lauderdale. Linebacker Mike Leonard is adept at disrupting plays on the other side of scrimmage.
Division V – This division may be the toughest to predict. But Claremont's Stevens High, a semifinalist last season, earns the slight edge. The Cardinals return several key contributors from a seven-win team. Signal-caller Logan Batchelder, now a junior, is among those returning for the team.
Division VI – Two years ago, Meredith's Inter-Lakes High experienced a storybook season with Paul Lavigne at the helm. Lavigne, a longtime high school and college coach, could be working with yet another Lakes Region title team.
The Lakers didn't lose much to graduation and instead added personnel with the addition of athletes from Moultonborough Academy. Linebacker Conor Donovan and lineman Hayden Jurius are Lavigne's leaders this cooperative team.
SOCCER'S TOP TARGETS (BOYS)
Division I – The final has featured Pinkerton in four of the last six seasons, most recently a year ago when the program finished No. 1.
The Astros are poised to repeat for these reasons: They return leading scorer Sean Smith, and considerable experience at the other end of the pitch. Brian Kling, Alex Patrikis and Shane Whitehouse are back on defense.
Division II – Can anyone stop Hanover High? The Marauders are the six-time defending champion. Several faces are new, but results aren't expected to change with Trey Rebman leading the charge. Robin Smith and Daniel Hazlett add to the team's wealth of talent.
Division III – Regardless of who's on the roster, it's hard to ground Gilford High's Golden Eagles. Midfielders Nick Riendeau and Vinnie Sisti, and defender Garrett Workman are the veteran leaders on this year's squad, whose task is to defend the program's 14th crown won last fall.
Division IV – Wilton-Lyndeborough High welcomes back most of its championship club. Opponents again must game plan for Adam Edmunds and Stephen Taliadoros, a quality scoring duo.
SOCCER'S TOP TARGETS (GIRLS)
Division I – Hampton's Winnacunnet High wears the bull's-eye. Forward Kirsten O'Neil, a scholarship recruit for St. Diego State, returns. In the tournament quarterfinals a year ago, O'Neil netted the game-winning goal after scoring the equalizer that sent the match to overtime.
Division II – Defending champion Lebanon High appears poised to repeat. A baker's dozen worth of talent returns. Such veterans include goalkeeper Chrissy Drake. Defenders Haley Falzarano, Kyra Herbert and Colleen Taylor also anchor an experienced defense.
Division III – Litchfield's Campbell High returns several key contributors from last year's title team. Olivia Planty can put pressure on opposing netminders, while goalie Ashley Gannon and Liz Pettis assumes leadership roles at the other end.
Division IV – Manchester's Derryfield School has a stranglehold on the league. The Cougars seek to clinch their fourth consecutive championship. Offensive production is largely the responsibility of Carla Nyquist.
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his "New Hampshire GameDay" blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.