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High school boys, girls basketball seasons kick off

We’re hoping for smooth sailing with the abbreviated local high school boys basketball season, but that will be a tall order amidst the pandemic.

But it’s underway, and a lot of the unanswered questions we had with the tournament scrapped just before the quarterfinals could be answered.

One team that suffered a premature ending last winter, but on the floor, not in a decision-making conference room, was Bishop Guertin. The Cards were upset in the prelims by Salem, but thanks in part to a couple of transfers plus key returnees, they look loaded for this winter. They suffered a tough opening night loss to Goffstown but got back on the winning track earlier this week.

Elsewhere locally in Division I, North and South are set to open up their seasons Tuesday after being on pause. Alvirne has some key players back, while Merrimack has a young team – no seniors – and a new coach in Austin Denton as longtime coach Tim Goodridge is taking at least this season off. Denton has long been Goodridge’s right hand man as well as a former Tomahawk player. Both the Broncos and Tomahawks are 1-1.

“There is a ton of talent on North, South, Alvirne and Merrimack,” Guertin coach John Fisher said. “I believe the competition in the Nashua area will be fierce.”

In Division II, the Cavs should be a contender in what appears to be a wide open division, and looked good in a win over Milford last week. Campbell has a young team and the division’s youngest coach in first-year mentor Justin DiBenedetto. Wilton-Lyndeborough got off to rough start in losing to Conant the other night in its opener and play mainly out of its division, like Campbell. But, remember, it’s an open tourney.

Here’s a look:

DIVISION I

The Cardinals had an interesting off-season, likely much to the chagrin of other locals. Nate Kane, a key cog in the Nashua North attack, transferred in along with sophomore Javari Ellison and former Alvirne senior Gianni Ungarro. As Fisher said, adding them to the lineup “certainly helps our chances. … I look forward to seeing how this group (the entire team) performs.”

Put them together with returnees Lucas Baker (6-5 senior forward), 6-0 senior guard Jordan Robichaud, 6-1 senior forward Dylan Santosuosso, and 6-3 forward John Sullivan.

At Nashua North, athlete supreme Curtis Harris-Lopez hopes to go out on a high note; the Titans are still wondering how a quarterfinal with Merrimack would have gone last year after a 14-4 regular season and first round win.

He’s one of six seniors, the others being 6-3 forward Sam McElliott, 5-10 guard Jayden Espinal, 6-0 swingman Spencer Labreque, 5-10 guard Stephen Norris, and 6-5 forward Tom Mason.

Improvement, Lane said, is the key.

“We’ll compete, appreciate, and be thankful for the abbreviated season,” he said. “We’ll incorporate and transition the younger players to gain valuable varsity experience.” And with an open tourney, the Titans can do it freely.

The Panthers had a fine 12-7 season last year, capped by a great road prelim win over Winnacunnet. Now, graduation took its toll but four keys return: 6-3 senior swingman Cody Rocheleau, 6-0 junior guard Alex Hulfachor, 5-11 senior guard Jaden Murphy and 6-8 senior center Rhett Medling.

As always, Panthers coach Nate Mazerolle feels the defensive end will be the key. “Tough man-to-man defense will always be our identity,” he said. “We have several members to our team, so as always, we hope to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”

Even with no seniors, Merrimack has a key returnee in 6-1 junior guard Jack Tarleton, who led them in scoring last season with 12.5 points a game. Other keys include sophomore Issac Ynfante, junior Shea Goodwin, plus 6-0 juniors Aidan Ponder and Kobe Pimentel.

“My biggest thing is just compete,” Denton said. “We know we don’t have seniors, but that’s our biggest goal, come out and compete and try to get better every day.”

Watch out for Alvirne. They upset Bedford in the first round last year after a 9-9 regular season and coach Marty Edwards team is ready to pick up where they left off. They looked better earlier this week in a win over the Tomahawks than in an opening night loss to Pinkerton.

The Broncos have size, with 6-6 senior Liam O’Neil and 6-8 junior Brendan Graham. They’ll be run by 5-11 senior point guard Charlie Thomas and he’ll look to get seniors Jake Hibbard (6-1) and Nick Jacques (6-4) involved.

“We should be strong on the inside,” Edwards said. “We’ve got some athletes and our transition game should be good.”

DIVISION II

The Cavaliers have six key seniors back: Forwards Matt Dias, Blake Bergerson and Matt Kelley, plus guards Rob Haytayan, Brian Szewczyk and Ethan Smith. Dias had a big game in the opening night rout of Milford.

Their keys to success? “Staying together as a team,” HB coach Cole Etten said. “Coming together to work hard at practice, staying healthy.”

The Spartans will be co-coached this year as Dan Murray, due to some physical issues, will share the job with Don Gutterson. Two starters are back,junior guard Ryon Constable and junior forward Caden Zalenski – Zalenski played well in the loss to HB. Seniors Mike Philbrick (shooting guard) and Nick Sloan (forward) are also keys and there are at least eight other Spartans to provide depth.

“We are young, inexperienced, extremely undersized,” Murray said, “but work hard and are starting to put together a competitive basketball team. I really like our improvement, as our roles get filled this is going to be a lot of fun.”

At Souhegan, Matt Lemieux takes over on an interim basis this season for Sabers coach Peter Pierce, and the team has just begun tryouts after athletics haven’t been able to start until earlier this week.

But last year they graduated four seniors and have the potential of having seven seniors on this year’s squad, led by senior scorer Matt McCool and rugged senior forward Mike Maroun.

DIVISION III

DiBenedetto feels playing the bigger schools will help. The Cougars, who were 0-2 at season’s start, have some keys in sophomore Dylan Rice and senior Will McPherson

“We feel as the season goes on we will grow and get better by playing these tougher opponents,” the coach said, “and should have us prepared and battle tested for the playoffs.”

DIVISION IV

New Warriors coach Wiley Billings feels playing out of division will make his team better. Point guard Kyler Tremblay will look to pace the Warriors along with sharpshooter J.J. Leblanc. Look for Hunter Scales and Paul VanBlarigan to help out as well.

GIRLS BASKETBALL

Are the young Cardinals just like their predecessors?

Could be.

The Bishop Guertin High School girls basketball team had the brakes put on its Drive For Five last March when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the last two rounds of the Division I tournament.

The irony is that the Cardinals were a senior team last year, for the most part, and now the Cards will rely on sophomores “who played significant minutes as freshemen,” head coach Brad Kreick said.

So far, it’s been an interesting start to the season for the Cards. They’ve enjoyed two of their usual blowout wins heading into the weekend, over Goffstown and Londonderry, with an epic comeback win over Bedford last Sunday in between.

That young BG team may have grown up right then.

“Big time,” Kreick said. “No doubt.”

It looks like both the Cards and Bulldogs are the teams to beat. Manchester Memorial, Pinketon, and Concord are all considered contenders in some way.

We’re waiting to see what both Nashua North and South have, as they have been on pause and will open their seasons this Tuesday.

In Division II it looks like Hollis Brookline will again be strong locally, facing challenges from Hanover, Bow, and Bishop Brady once things get to the later rounds in the tournament.

The Cavs already own a romp over Milford in their opener and were slated to face last year’s Division III champion, Conant, heading into the weekend.

Campbell will look to take a next step in Division III; last season the Cougars nearly knocked off heavily favored Conant in the quarterfinals; Conant and Fall Mountain are the title favorites early on.

Here’s a look at how thing shape up locally:

DIVISION I

Yes, locally, Guertin again looks like the best team, but the difference this year is age. They have that young nucleus of seven sophomores led by six-foot Meghan Stack, whom Kreick feels could dominate.

Also, look at 5-8 or 5-9 guards Kailee McDonald, Brooke Paquette and Liv Murray, all keys. Murray’s free throws down the stretch keyed the Bedford win and she had 27 the other night vs. Londonderry.

“The biggest key to our success is how quickly our telanted underclassmen mature and play with better consistency,” Kreick said.

The North Titans will hope to improve on a 7-11 season from a year ago with 5-5 sophomore Grace Cardin back as the returning leading scorer. They also have some size with 6-2 center Victoria Conrad and will also look to senior guards Lily Brooks (5-8) and Kaitlyn Laurendi (5-4).

But, as Titans coach Curt Dutilley said, “It’s impossible to know how we’ll do,” noting the team has practiced seven times in six weeks. Stay tuned.

Nashua South has a strong nucleus back from an 8-10 team that upset Manchester Central in the prelims before bowing out in the quarters at Bedford. They’ll be led by four seniors: 5-9 guard Aryanna Murray, 5-8 Iruka Obinelo, 5-4 Maya Rioux and 5-7 Julianna Martin. There are a half dozen other returnees and five new players to add some depth.

“We have full confidence in this group as they are motivated, talented, and ready to compete,” Panthers coach John Bourgeois said.

Last year’s contender, Merrimack, turns the page from a veteran squad to a younger team with a new coach, Bryan Duggan but they were no worse for wear as they were 2-0 heading into the weekend.

“We have a group with not a ton of varsity playing experience but have been around a winning culture last year and understand what it takes,” Duggan said.

Duggan wants his team to be up tempo, and has a 5-8 junior in Emma Valluzzi whose athleticism should lead that trend. There are four key seniors – 5-8 Keira Bike, 5-10 Gillian Waller, 6-0 Olivia Cote and 5-5 Lilli Dabilis — and another important junior in 5-5 Shannon Shadwani.

The Broncos of Alvirne have a new coach, former Campbell boys coach Frank Girginis, a Bronco alum who has coached some of his new players at the younger levels.

It was a stunning 3-15 season last year for a team that started out well with experience and collapsed. Key players back are sophomores Paige McKinley – she had 19 the other night – plus Lyla Davis (forward) and senior forward Ella Davis.

They began 0-2 but show good signs. “We just need to find a way to put four quarters together,” said Girginis, who loves his team’s heart. “We will get there.”

DIVISION II

Hollis Brookline is once again a legitimate contender, eager to erase the memory of a tough quarterfinal upset loss at the hands of Bishop Brady.

There’s a big triumverate of 5-6 junior guard Elisabeth Stapelfeld, 5-8 junior Maggie Crooks and 5-11 sophomore frontcourt key Cheyenne Colbert, who led the team in rebounding last year as a freshman. Stapelfeld was a scoring machine in the second half of the season for the Cavs, who head coach Bob Murphy hinted are expecting big things if they, like everyone else, can get through a pandemic season.

“We have high expectations,” Murphy said, based on how deep he feels this team will be.

Some depth comes in 5-9 transfer forward Caroline Clarke and 5-7 junior Amanda Robbins off the bench. Murphy could have as many as 10 players he can use.

Milford, meanwhile, is hoping to rise up at least a little bit from the other end of the spectrum, a winless 2019-2020. Experience should help the Spartans do that led by 5-10 senor forward Sarah Dobbs (averaged nine ppg last year), 5-4 senior guard Alexa Wilder, 5-3 senior Jessie Gendren, and 5-8 sophomore forward Bailey Johnson.

“Our plan is to continue to get better every time we step on the court, practices and games,” second year Spartans coach Mike Davidson said. “Our season goals are more focused on improvement game by game.”

Souhegan, which went on pause but was slated to open up this weekend,, hopes to improve from last year’s 5-13 mark with 5-9 senior forward Hunter Stonebreaker, 5-8 junior Sabra Biddle, 5-7 sophomore point guard Kate Canavan and 5-3 junior Abby Rose leading the way. Canavan really came on the second half of last season.

“Our biggest key,” Sabers coach Mike Vetack said, “is how our younger players fill those minutes this season.”

DIVISION III

Campbell is hoping to forge ahead with its regional schedule, which will be tough as it includes mainly Division II teams. They’ll be relying on point guard Riley Gamache, who missed the first two games under quarantine but was back to key the Cougars first win earlier this week, plus the athletic senior frontcourt duo of Karleigh Schultz and Tori Allen. Allen is an All-State center who has shown it thus far with a 20-point, 16-board game earlier this week.

DIVISION IV

Wilton-Lyndeborough once again won’t compete on a varsity level but this year will field a junior varsity team, as the Warriors, who have a proud tradition, build their numbers back up.

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