Let’s start, simply, with a three-syllable salute to the state whose high school sports provide the content for this notebook.
The area code for New Hampshire — 603 — once again made for the most memorable post-game chant at the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl on Aug. 7. The Granite State’s recent high school graduates, on Windsor (Vt.) High’s MacLeay-Royce Field, topped Vermont in the 57th annual all-star football game, 34-20.
New Hampshire clinched a Shrine-record 10th consecutive win in the series, eclipsing its nine-game streak from 1989-97.
As it relates to this year’s game, here’s how to best explain the superiority of New Hampshire’s 35-player squad: It nearly doubled Vermont in turnovers, 7-4, including four first-quarter giveaways, and committed an astounding 18 penalties for 165 yards.
And New Hampshire still won by two touchdowns.
“One-hundred-sixty-five yards in penalties?” Shrine assistant and retired Londonderry High coaching legend Tom Sawyer said in disbelief. “That’s almost two football fields.”
Fact is, New Hampshire never trailed. Instead, it twice built a lead of 20 points.
If this reporter had a game ball to give, it’d go to Connor Lyons.
Set to play baseball on scholarship at Northeastern, the star from Manchester’s Trinity High kicked four extra points. He helped with coverage on Vermont’s top wideout.
Lyons also made the game’s biggest play. Moments after Vermont pulled within 20-14, he returned the ensuing kick-off 75 yards for a momentum-changing TD. His leap over the right pylon came just nine seconds before halftime.
“I had a pick-six and dove into the end zone for my last play at Trinity,” said Lyons, referring to the final play he made for the Pioneers, in last fall’s Division V championship clincher. “It was like déjà vu.”
So, too, was the Shrine Game outcome.
New Hampshire improved to 42-13-2 in the series.
“We made plays where we could,” said Vermont head coach Charlie Burnett. “But there’s good football players over in the state of New Hampshire.”
NEW YEAR, NEW LOOK
Starting this school year, teams in all NHIAA sports will be grouped by divisions (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) rather than classes (L, I, M, S).
The divisional format allows individual teams to petition up (or in rare cases down) to a league for larger schools. Previously, all teams competing under the class format shared one classification.
Take Hollis/Brookline High, for example. The school’s student population is 903, far from the enrollment size for Division I soccer (1251-plus). But the girls’ team, a Class I finalist the last three years, will play against the largest schools. The boys’ team will play where its enrollment places it, in Division II (651-1250).
Football is one of the few sports previously aligned by division. Like the last two years, it is broken into six divisions. Baseball, basketball, skiing, soccer, softball and winter spirit will each have four divisions.
Cross country, field hockey, golf, boys’ ice hockey, lacrosse, outdoor track, fall spirit, tennis and girls’ volleyball will feature three divisions. Indoor track, swimming and diving, and wrestling have two divisions apiece. Bowling, gymnastics, girls’ ice hockey and boys’ volleyball are single-division sports.
AND A NEW PLAN
Along with the new across-the-board divisional format, a new point system will be used for all sports to determine playoff teams.
The New Hampshire Index Plan awards points for wins. A greater value is assigned to road victories. Point totals will be divided by games played to determine playoff slots.
But the NHIP doesn’t consider quality of competition. So, a road team that beats a sub-.500 host earns more points than a struggling squad that, at home, tops a league power.
Watch how this affects football, specifically. Unlike other NHIAA sports, just four teams per division reach the playoffs.
“I understand (the NHIAA) wants continuity among all sports,” said Pinkerton Academy head football coach Brian O’Reilly. “I don’t know how (the universal system) will play out down the road. But getting more points for winning on the road, regardless of who the opponent is, and getting less points for winning at home, regardless of who the opponent is, isn’t necessarily the right thing.”
Portsmouth High senior Keegan Taylor verbally committed to play baseball on scholarship for Northeastern earlier this month, while his younger brother was competing for Little League baseball’s New England championship in Bristol, Conn.
Taylor was a member of Portsmouth’s 2006 Little League all-star team that finished No. 1 in New England. Portsmouth became New Hampshire’s fourth, and most recent, squad to reach the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa.
The Greenland resident helped propel Portsmouth to the second-best LLWS run in state history. He was the starting pitcher in the single-elimination United States semifinals, a game played against eventual world champion Columbus, Ga., in front of 19,468 fans.
“It definitely helped with dealing with pressure situations,” Taylor, 17, said of the LLWS experience. “Being in Little League, at 12 years old with millions of people watching on TV, it scared the (heck) out of me then. But now, all those tough situations I get put in, nothing compares.”
Recruited to pitch for the Huskies, Taylor throws four- and two-seam fastballs, a split-finger fastball, curveball and changeup.
As a sophomore and junior, Taylor helped Portsmouth High’s varsity team win its second and third straight titles in what was previously Class I. He’ll likely be the ace this spring, when the Clippers seek to extend their state-best 63-game win streak.
Along with Taylor, Portsmouth High’s 2009 roster featured additional Division I college baseball talent. Recent graduates Mike Montville and Nate Jones will play for Maryland and Wake Forest, respectively, and Taylor said returning pitcher Aidan O’Leary verbally committed to Manhattan.
“It definitely speaks of what comes from (Portsmouth youth) baseball,” Taylor said of the Clippers 2009 title team featuring four Division I talents. “Kids and parents live for baseball in this town. It’s definitely helped all of us become better baseball players.”
Sixteen fall sports teams enter this season as, at the very least, two-time defending champions.
In boys’ soccer, Hanover (Div. II) is the five-time defending champion. Hopkinton (Div. III) has won four straight titles. Girls’ soccer features two teams, Langdon’s Fall Mountain (Div. III) and Manchester’s Derryfield School (Div. IV), coming off back-to-back championship seasons.
Bristol’s Newfound Regional (Div. III) claimed the previous two field hockey championships in Class M-S.
A boys’ cross-country three-peat is possible for Bishop Guertin (Div. I), Hanover (Div. II) and Belmont (Div. III). Same goes for Manchester Central’s girls (Div. I), while Hanover (Div. II) seeks its seventh straight title and Hopkinton (Div. III) goes for four in a row.
Salem (Div. I) is a two-time defending champ in golf. Mascenic Regional of New Ipswich (Div. III) won it all in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
And then there’s football. Bishop Guertin (Div. I) and Souhegan (Div. III) each eye a three-peat. But Plymouth (Div. IV) carries the biggest target: A nation-best 55-game win streak resulting from a Division III three-peat from 2005-07 and Division IV repeat in 2008-09.
Marc Thaler is a staff reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He has been the high schools reporter for football and lacrosse since joining the statewide newspaper in 2006. A graduate of Syracuse University (2000), he wrote about the state’s football history for an exhibit at The Hall at Patriot Place. The Bedford, N.H., native has covered the Little League World Series, NCAA men’s lacrosse championships, UNH athletics and New Hampshire Fisher Cats baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.