Marshwood offensive lineman Zach Mitchell, left, will continue to open blocks this season for fellow senior Jackson Howarth this season as the Hawks look to return to the Western Maine Class B championship for a third straight season.
By Mike Zhe
September 04, 2014 2:00 AM
Every new high school football season brings questions. This one has more than most.
There may be new division alignments, new coaches and new quarterbacks, but teams that have been practicing for weeks ahead of this weekend’s openers have the same old burning desire to distinguish themselves and help their teams succeed.
On the Seacoast, the schedule kicks off with five games on Friday night and two more on Saturday afternoon. So, without further delay, let’s try to answer seven burning questions about the upcoming season:
1. Which local team has the best chance to win a championship? Marshwood.
If you took a straw preseason poll among coaches in Western Maine Class B, the Hawks would sit atop it. Several core guys played in a state final two years ago — losing to Mount Blue in a 44-42 shootout — and got back to the regional final last year, getting outclassed by senior-heavy Kennebunk.
Behind a standout group of linebackers and rugged running back Brett Gerry, who’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, the Hawks have a chance to give third-year coach Alex Rotsko his second regional championship — and maybe even something more.
“Everybody’s real close,” said senior Jackson Howarth, who will start at fullback and inside linebacker. “We just want to win that gold ball. We’ve been pushing real hard this first week of practice.”
2. Will we still see Portsmouth put up big offensive numbers? Not as much as we’ve grown used to.
For the Clippers, the issue isn’t really the new quarterback, since senior Connor DiCesare has gotten groomed for this season since he was a sophomore. Or a supporting cast that features playmakers like tailback Joey Auger, wide receiver Loden Formichelli and fullback Mikel Toar, once he gets clearance.
Over the last seven years in Division II and III, Portsmouth didn’t face the consistently stronger defenses it will this fall during its foray into Division I. Its two Division II playoff games last season — the 18-14 win over Trinity in the semifinals and the 21-14 overtime loss at Plymouth in the championship — could tease what’s in store week in and week out.
In their dress rehearsal, a scrimmage against a good Marshwood defense last week, the Clippers’ starters got better as the game went, crafting two third-quarter scoring drives after a mostly empty first half.
“We’re getting better each week,” maintained DiCesare. “I can definitely tell that. Guys are getting more confident. Some people are emerging. I think things are really going to fall into place very soon. It just takes some time to develop these younger guys.”
3. Which non-playoff team from a year ago will get back in the postseason? St. Thomas Aquinas.
Things are lined up nicely for the Saints, who should have one of the better defenses in Division II behind an experienced line, plus guys like linebackers Matt Murray and Danny Rogers, and cornerback Kevin Kaneb.
The elevation of Portsmouth to Division I doesn’t hurt, setting up St. Thomas, which finished 6-3 last year, and Merrimack Valley as the early favorites to reach the East Conference title game.
“We’re so young but we have so much talent,” said Rogers, a senior who led the Saints in tackles last year. “This is the year that we have more athleticism than we’ve had in a long, long time. If we play to our full capability, the possibilities are endless.”
4. Which offensive player is most primed for a breakout season? Cullen McCarty.
York’s 6-foot, 200-pound junior tailback figures to leave a mark on opponents this fall, in more ways that one.
The son of UNH defensive line coach Peter McCarty gave up a lot of carries to established back Sean Kelly last year as the Wildcats went 7-3, losing in the Western Maine Class B semifinals, but with a new quarterback — Cole Merritt — he’ll get all kinds of chances.
“He’s probably one of the most intelligent backs we’ve had,” said York coach Randy Small. “He’s an incredible film-studier. And you’re not going to outwork him; nobody works harder.”
The other runner in the Wildcats’ backfield is 200-pound fullback Jack Neary. Toss in a solid group of receivers and this York attack should be as balanced as anyone’s.
“We have a lot of weapons we can throw to and we kid around that we have 400 pounds of running back coming at you,” said Small.
5. Who’s the area top college prospect? Neil Vorster.
At 6-foot-2, 273 pounds, Vorster has FCS size and two years as a starter under his belt. He’ll help pave the way for runners as the center in the Blue Hawks’ Wing-T, and contain ball carriers on defense as an end.
A captain, he’ll try to lead Exeter farther than it went a year ago, when it fell to eventual champion Concord in the Division I semifinals, ending a two-year state title reign.
6. How many new quarterbacks will we see this fall? At least seven.
Four local programs are replacing graduated seniors with anointed new guys — DiCesare at Portsmouth, junior Brian Auffant at Winnacunnet, senior Cole Merritt at York and sophomore Angelo Succi at Traip.
In addition, Exeter and Marshwood will begin their seasons with a tandem under center — incumbent Luc Blanchette and senior Kyle Parmley for Marshwood, and senior Grant LaButte and sophomore Kyle Ball for the Blue Hawks.
Only St. Thomas, where junior Trevor Martin is back for his third year under center (but may also play some wide receiver and yield snaps to Steven Hedberg), and Epping-Newmarket, which has Alex Hackett back as a senior, don’t have turnover at the position.
7. Which team has the toughest September to navigate? Winnacunnet.
The Warriors, who are breaking in new starters across the skill-position spectrum, get a trip to Dover for starters. Their next three games are against defending champion Concord, which looks stacked again; Bedford, a legit title contender; and old rival Exeter.
Coach Ron Auffant knows he has a work in progress. Improvement will be important, with key conference games against Portsmouth and Spaulding on tap for October that will help determine who reaches the conference championship game.
“I think this is a team that should get better as the season goes on,” he said.
The flip side belongs to Epping, which faces the iron of Division III’s South Conference — Bow, Campbell and Somersworth — in October.
“October will determine how far we will go,” said first-year coach Justin Leonard.