The immediate goal for Pinkerton Academy's Astros is straightforward: Finish atop the regular-season standings this winter in Division I boys' hockey.
Sounds cliché, right?
Turns out this very dangerous squad from Derry – the preseason pick to finish as rink royalty – has yet to earn a No. 1 playoff seed under nine-year coach Casey Kesselring.
“We've never finished first,” Kesselring confirmed before adding that his 2008-09 title team emerged from the bracket as the No. 4 seed.
Kesselring's club a year ago earned the No. 2 seed. But the Astros were a quarterfinals casualty, stunned at home by arch-rival Londonderry, 3-2.
Considering the talent returning on Pinkerton's roster, expectations are extremely high.
First-line wingers Zach Sanford and J.D. Dudek fuel Pinkerton's high-octane attack. Sanford, a junior, and Dudek, a sophomore, led the team in points a year ago.
Further illustrating the talent this team possesses: Freshman Devin Moore centers the top line.
There's no drop-off with the second line. Junior center Dominic Corsetto skates with classmate Connor Brady and sophomore Brendan Philippon.
Kesselring believes the trio would be the top line for most clubs in the state.
Clearly, Pinkerton's strength is potting pucks. Offensive output should provide insurance for the team's junior goaltenders. Nate Mitchell and Matt Marchman are first-year varsity stoppers.
Of course, the coach isn't the least bit worried about the lack of varsity experience his goalies possess. Nor is he concerned about the preseason bull's-eye painted on Pinkerton.
“It doesn't bother me. It gives the school recognition. It gives the kids recognition,” Kesselring said. “But they don't hand out rings in the preseason.”
The top team in this league resides on the Seacoast. It's Dover High's Green Wave.
Coach Steve Riker's club is the defending champion. But the real reason Dover earned preseason favorite status is because of the skaters returning for the title defense.
Senior Matt Henderson, the team's leading goal-scorer (15) a year ago, skates with classmate and fellow winger Liam Murphy. Speedy sophomore center Alec Parmer has playmaking potential.
But Dover's blue-line depth and experience is impossible to ignore. Four seniors will log key minutes in front of senior goalie Tyler Briand, a first-year starter. The quartet includes Clayton Garland, Riley Leavitt, Travis Smalley and Tyler Zabkar, the quarterback for the state finalist football team.
“We like to play up-tempo and aggressive, so we'll take some penalties,” Riker said. “We'll need to kill them.”
Alvrine High of Hudson is the team to beat. Forward Phil Sweeney was a force last season as a junior, leading the Broncos to the state semifinals.
He's back, and quite possibly the division's top playmaker. Senior Cam Brock and junior Reed Vandergraaf also return.
But the Broncos aren't favorites by very much based on the athletes specific foes return. Cooperative teams Belmont-Gilford (goalie Alex Conway) and Windham-Pelham (forward Nick Morin), and Conway's Kennett High (forward Kevin Murphy) add to the league's parity.
There's zero debate regarding the team to beat. It's powerhouse Hanover High, which seeks a championship three-peat and fourth crown in the five-year existence of NHIAA girls' hockey.
The bad news for Hanover's league foes: The Marauders graduated very little talent from last year's team that went undefeated against in-state competition.
Hanover's first line returns. The trio includes twin sisters Madison and Tessa Hill, and Maddie Dewhirst.
Runners-up last season, Trinity High's Pioneers are the coaches' pick to win the title later this season at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gymnasium.
The reason, according to the coach of city rival and perennial contender Manchester Central:
“They have the best starting five of anybody,” Doc Wheeler told the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Three-fifths of Trinity's top-notch quintet have serious height. Silvere Aluko towers at 6 feet, 10 inches. Mabor Gabriel (6-foot-7) and Andrew Lauderdale (6-foot-6) don't figure to be looking up at many defenders, either.
Hunter Viscarello, similar to the past two seasons, is expected to provide suffocating defense. High expectations surround Ian Sistare, the team's freshman point guard.
Portsmouth High or Pembroke Academy: Who's the team to beat?
That's the debate in this division. Portsmouth reached the title game last winter and welcomes back three starters. Pembroke was a quarterfinal casualty, but returns its entire starting lineup.
Senior leadership in the backcourt is extremely valuable. Portsmouth has it with Kamahl Walker. Meanwhile, Charlie Duprey and Gregg Tsougranis also started for last year's state finalist squad.
Pembroke counters with playmaking junior Rene Maher. Teammates Matt Person and Pat Welch are among the many weapons the Spartans have at their disposal.
Fans won't wait long for a potential championship preview. The teams tip off in the Dec. 16 season opener.
Scoring threat Curtis Arsenault, already a 1,000-point scorer, makes Berlin High the favorite in a league that was recently dominated by Jaffrey's Conant High (2006-10).
Dan Sirois leads Conant's Orioles, who are always a factor come tourney time.
Defending champion Lisbon High is still pegged as the title favorite, even though coach Les Poore retired after last winter's championship run. Two reasons the Panthers remain the targeted team: Chad Knighton and Mike Heath.
Hampton's Winnacunnet High has a stranglehold on this tier. The five-time defending champion took a 77-game win streak into the 2011-12 season.
On this year's to-do list: Win a sixth straight large-school league championship, a feat never before accomplished in New Hampshire.
These Warriors have the talent to do it. Eight players from last season's title-winner return to the court. The veteran cast includes seniors Kirsten O'Neil and Anna Sullivan.
A second straight title is quite possible for Amherst's Souhegan High. Jane White – whose clutch shooting in last year's final led the Sabers to a No. 1 finish – returns to the backcourt for her senior season.
White isn't the only weapon Souhegan has in its arsenal. Victoria Forrest and Ceara McNamara, both 6-foot forces, give the Sabers shot-blocking ability and potential to pull down plenty of rebounds.
Coach Shawn Flynn has guided Campbell High of Litchfield to four straight title games. There's no reason to believe the program won't extend its streak to five – and successfully defend last year's championship.
Becca Arnone is a low-post force capable of consistently filling the scoring and rebound columns. Liz Pettis, a guard, provides leadership and experience.
Groveton High is the four-time defending champion. Another title this winter will mark the second time in program history the Eagles collected five consecutive crowns.
Since 1988, the program has appeared in 18 title games (15 wins). MaKenna Burke is Groveton's latest go-to talent.
No surprise, here. New England's most dominant program, Timberlane Regional of Plaistow, is again the pick.
Coach Barry Chooljian and the Owls have won 12 consecutive Division I crowns (19 overall). They also won the last eight Meet of Champions titles.
Oh, the resume also includes regional dominance. Timberlane is the first program to win the New England crown nine times. The last four belong to the Owls, too.
Zach Bridson (120 pounds) is Timberlane's top talent. He will wrestle next year for Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Give the edge to Goffstown High's Grizzlies. Recent history suggests it's a wise move.
Goffstown placed third at the Meet of Champions a year ago. In four of the last six seasons, the Grizzlies twice won the title and twice finished runner-up.
NHIAA wrestling expanded to three divisions last season. Plymouth Regional won the inaugural league title. Prior to making the move, the Bobcats were a force in Division II. The program celebrated six championships and two runner-up finishes in an 11-year span.
SHRINE TEAM NEWS
The head coaches for this summer's 59th annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl were recently announced. Souhegan's Mike Beliveau, a four-time NHIAA title-winner, will lead New Hampshire's all-stars for the second time.
Beliveau – whose championship seasons in Division III were 2004 and 2008-10 – first served as the Granite State's head coach in 2000. New Hampshire lost that year to Vermont, 47-40, marking the last time the Green Mountain State's all-stars were victorious.
New Hampshire owns a Shrine-record 11-game win streak.
This year's game, scheduled for Aug. 4, returns to Dartmouth College's Memorial Field in Hanover. The past three contests took place at Windsor (Vt.) High's MacLeay-Royce Field.
GATI SAYS GOODBYE
After 37 years coaching high school football in New Hampshire, Jack Gati decided to step down. Gati, who has spent the last 18 seasons at Salem High, ranks third in state history for career wins.
The 59-year-old served as head coach at Trinity (1978-85), Concord High (1986-93) and Salem High (1994-2011) posted a career record of 221-138.
Gati took each program to the title game and appeared in eight championship bouts. He won four state titles, two apiece at Concord (1987, 1989) and Salem (1995, 2009).
Citing fatigue, Gati officially resigned Dec. 5. He actually wrestled with the idea of retiring for the last three years.
“At the end of every year, I would sit back and evaluate, and (decide to) go again,” Gati told New Hampshire GameDay. “This year, before the season started, I said, 'This one's it. Thirty-seven years is a good number.'”
Marc Thaler is a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He co-hosts the “New Hampshire High School Sports Show” on Manchester's WGIR-AM 610 and the Seacoast's 96.7 FM every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Read his “New Hampshire GameDay” blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.