Keep an eye on Merrimack, BG hockey next season

Telegraph file photo by TOM KING Merrimack goalie Ben Hardy, shown making a save during teh semifinals, will be a huge key for the Tomahawks' push to return to the tournament next season.

Perhaps the wait will be over a year from now.

It’s been three years since the area has had a hockey team playing in the SNHU Arena in Manchester on hockey championship day. Bedford beat Bishop Guertin 4-3 in the Division I boys final in 2016 and that’s been it.

Perhaps next year things might change. Two teams right now, if you take an early look, head the possibilities: Guertin again, and also Merrimack in Division II.

Why? That simple age-old graduation formula: Merrimack loses just one senior, Bishop Guertin four.

Here’s a look at how things may shape up locally and beyond in each division, including girls hockey:

DIVISION I

Guertin coach Gary Bishop can’t wait to start next season.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Bishop said. “We had eight sophomores and three freshmen play a lot. We had some great games. Most of our losses were by one goal.”

Guertin spread its scoring out – junior forward Ben Young had 12 goals and 12 assists to lead the way- and had only one player on All State First or Second Team, junior forward Pat Madden. They’ll have a lot of those forwards back, barring any prep school/junior moves. But spreading out their scoring is a strength. And Guertin lost seven games by two goals or less – including 3-2 vs. Concord in overtime in the quarterfinals.

The thing the Cards want to do next year is stabilize the goalie position. It suffered a jolt with Colin Freitas’ knee injury that kept him out all season and may keep him out for part of next year. Nick Hall graduates, leaving Chris Sullivan and Even Butler left.

“I think we have to settle on our goaltender early,” Bishop said. “We got into a revolving door with our goalies. I don’t think anyone had a chance to step up.”

What about the area’s other two Divsion I teams, the Nashua co-ops? South-Pelham had its best season to date, going 8-9-1 and making an unprecedented second straight tourney appearace. The problem is the Kings didn’t take the next step by winning a tourney game.

“It was a weird season this year,” Kings coach Shawn Connors said toward the end of the year, talking about the high number of wins it took to get in. Now the look ahead is on the numbers, which he expects to stay strong. The Kings lose four seniors, but they were all key players – forwards Riley Nutter, Joe Moore, defenseman Josh Kinghorn, as well as forward Alex Evans.

“We’re only losing four or five guys,” Connors said. “We’re going to make a really good run at it for next year, we’re looking strong.”

Some names to look for next season include forward Ryan Desimone, Chris Skelley (he excelled as just a freshman) and Dante Young. Desimone and Young will be seniors, as will goalie Nate Serrentino, who settled into a regular role.

North-Souhegan won just four games but is graduating the most seniors of anyone – eight. That may be tough to see an improvement, but there were JV players for both the Kings and the Saber-Titans this year. After his first year on the job, coach Josh Lavoie has an idea of what to expect.

“Scoring will be our issue with losing John Natale, our leading scorer,” he said. “But we’re looking for Michael Dodge, Josh Constant, and Jack Belter to step up and contribute the goal scoring.” And those three are all familiar names who got plenty of ice time.

Ryan Dancoes leads a defensive unit returning that Lavoie feels will be the team’s strength, especially if goalies Jack Casey and Colin Duckless continue the development they had as freshmen. The Saber-Titans had some tough games, but they had some very competitive ones as well.

“Overall next year we look forward to continuing our growth as a team and competing for (a tourney berth),” Lavoie said.

Will the usual suspects – Concord, Pinkerton, Bedford, etc. – continue to be the powers that be?

“There were eight teams that could’ve won it,” Bishop said. “Bedford will be tough because they always have the numbers, but they lose a couple of key guys (including scorer Parker Roberto, one of nine seniors). We’ll see.”

DIVISION II

Watch out for the Tomahawks. They won a quarterfinal tourney game on the road, shutting out Goffstown, and they chalk their 8-1semifinal loss to Dover to inexperience – and call it valuable experience. Remember, their two All-Staters, forward Zach Stimeling and goalie Ben Hardy (both Second Teamers) are likely back along with everyone else except reliable graduating senior Noah Melker. And two players who missed the tourney, second line center Zach Richard, and first line left winger Dom Caroza, will be back.

And head coach Dan Belliveau can see a familiar pattern.

“It was a very successful season for us,” Belliveau said. “We made the (prelims) last year and lost, and made the semis this year (and lost). But when we coached at Souhegan, we made the quarters and lost, then the semis, and the next year won the championship (in Division III).”

Food for thought. Meanwhile, it was a hugely successful first year for the new Alvirne-Milford co-op, which won eight games and made the post season (losing in the play-in game in a tight 4-2 game with Oyster River).

But remember, the Admirals were 8-4-2 and as high as fifth in the standings. “First time in six years we (an Alvirne team, co-op or otherwise) were in the top 10, let alone top five,” Admirals coach Matt Simpson said. “The kids bought into the skill work introduced in the pre-season, bought into the culture we built from the inside out, and kids executed the systems well until the home stretch.”

The numbers will be strong again with the co-op, but the Admirals lose valuable senior co-captains Jake Natola and Damien Barahona along with seven others to graduation.

“We must do a better job of dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s in the games that matter,” Simpson said. “The small things hurt us in the end but they are all fixable as the foundation of our program has been built.”

When you look to the future, a lot of hockey coaches immediately look to what comes from the lower middle school levels. There are only two current juniors on the roster, defensemen Anthony DeRosa and Alex MacLeod

“We have some talented players coming into the program, viable goaltender and sizable defense,” Simpson said. “We’ll be a young team next season but will build upon our game.”

Several teams lose as many as 6-10 seniors, including champion St. Thomas. So one team you can probably feel safe about being a contender are the Tomahawks.

DIVISION III

The season’s other big success story were the Hollis Brookline-Derryfield Warriors. HBDS had won only a handful of games in the last two years (3-15 a year ago) but this season, under new coach Joel Sanborn, went 9-9 and almost made the semis, losing to Belmont-Gilford in overtime.

Sanborn changed the culture.

“This team responded very well to new coaching this year and were motivated to improve which showed,” he said, giving credit to the players. “There was a great team atmosphere and these kids really played for each other but especially the seniors who had suffered through many losing seasons.”

They lose only three seniors and have some good young players such as 20-point scorers Sal Vella (sophomore this year) and Paul Vachon (freshman) back.

“I really look forward to see what we can do next season,” Sanborn said. “With such a young team currently and many middle school prospects the outlook for HBDS is good for many years to come.”

Pembroke-Campbell went 7-11 and lose two Campbell seniors, but have a handful of Cougars eligible to return, including current junior defenseman Kaleb Pelletier. They lose seven seniors overall.

Who will be contenders? You’d have to think the Warriors have a shot, but keep an eye on Kennett, losing just three after a down season. The champion Hawks of John Stark-Hopkinton lose eight seniors, and could be vulerable.

GIRLS

Once again, Souhegan loses an impact scorer to graduation in Shannon Paquette. And once again, coach Kelli Braley has identified a new top leader in junior defenseman Clare Woodford, who was actually the team’s second leading scorer.

“Clare will be huge for us,” Braley said, adding she feels other players like forward Ryleigh Tobin, defenseman Julia Pinkham, and forward Simonne Dodge will also be counted on to pick up some slack. “This class of juniors is a really phenominal group of girls. Every single year they rise to the next challenge.”

Thus the team will look to get beyond the disappointment of a first-round ouster despite a 10-win season. So will Bishop Guertin, which had a great surge to make the playoffs at 9-9, and almost made the quarters, losing in OT to St. Thomas-Winnacunnet in its prelim. The biggest graduation loss the Cards will suffer is forward Emma Wallat.

Graduation is ever the Cards biggest enemy – juniors and prep schools are. The Cards will look for goalies Sarah King and Brena DeFelice to improve and hope top sophomores Lindsay Hult and Brooke Yabroudy come back for more.

Overall, Hanover, even in a down year when it lost five out of state games and had an in-state tie with runnerup Exeter, will likely still rule.

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