High school football 2022: Changes aplenty in every division

·7 min read

Aug. 28—Since the end of the 2021 season, NHIAA football has changed more than Kim Kardashian's appearance.

The NHIAA evaluates its football alignment every two years and 2021 marked the end of a two-year cycle. None of the four divisions is the same as it was a year ago. Here's what the NHIAA came up with for this season:

Note: Any school with an asterisk requested to play in a division higher or lower than where it would be placed by enrollment.

DIVISION I (at least 900 students)

West: Bishop Guertin, Bedford, Goffstown, Keene, Nashua North, Nashua South and Merrimack.

Central: Londonderry, Salem, Pinkerton, Concord, Manchester Central, Alvirne and Windham.

East: Winnacunnet, Exeter, Timberlane, Portsmouth/Oyster River, Dover, Manchester Memorial and Spaulding.

Changes: Timberlane returned to Division I after a two-year stay in Division II. With 21 teams, Division I moved from four five-team conferences to three conferences with seven teams in each.

DIVISION II (551-899)

East: Bow, Gilford/Belmont, Laconia, Kennett, Merrimack Valley, Pembroke, Plymouth, Sanborn and St. Thomas.

West: Hanover, Hillsboro-Deering/Hopkinton, Hollis/Brookline, John Stark, Lebanon, Manchester West, Milford, Pelham and Souhegan.

Changes: Pelham, last year's Division III champion, and Laconia have moved up to Division II. Bow shifted from Division II West to Division II East.

DIVISION III (426-550)

Campbell,* ConVal, Epping/Newmarket, Fall Mountain, Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough, Kearsarge, *Kingswood, Monadnock, Stevens and Trinity.

Changes: Epping/Newmarket and Fall Mountain, programs that used to be in Division IV, are now in Division II. Kingswood dropped from Division II to Division III.

DIVISION IV (1-425)

Bishop Brady, Franklin, Mascoma, Newfound, Newport, Raymond, Somersworth and Winnisquam.

Changes: Winnisquam returned to Division IV after a two-year stay in Division III.

Division I also took a wrecking ball to its playoff format. Instead of eight playoff teams, Division I will send 13 teams to the postseason — the three conference champions plus 10 wild card teams. Since Division I teams no longer play balanced schedules, the football point rating will be used to determine which teams qualify for the playoffs. The three conference champions will each receive a first-round bye while the 10 others compete in the first round (No. 4 vs. No. 10, No. 5 vs. No. 9, etc.).

"I don't really care about that stuff (realignment), but adding Bedford and Goffstown gives us a true West conference," Nashua South coach Scott Knight said. "I like that. As for the playoffs, if we win enough, we'll get in. At the end of the day, (more playoff games) gives kids a chance to play in more games. Even if you're a marginal team that makes the playoffs ... you get to play an extra game."

The playoff structure remains the same in Division II (eight playoff teams), Division III (four playoff teams) and Division IV (four playoff teams).

The NHIAA also added a rule this year that prevents any team from participating in the playoffs if it is competing in a division lower than where it would be placed by enrollment. Since ConVal and Kingswood are Division II teams by enrollment, neither team can qualify for the Division III playoffs this year.

The favorites

Based on conversations with coaches, there seems to be a clear favorite in three of the four divisions. Those teams are Londonderry (Division I), Trinity (Division III) and Somersworth (Division IV).

Londonderry returns many key players from a team that won the Division I title last year. Bishop Guertin, Exeter and Timberlane are among the teams that could prevent the Lancers from winning back-to-back titles. Timberlane has 15 starters back from its championship team, including eight offensive starters.

"We have holes like every team, and we'll need to fill the voids left from last year's class, which will not be easy to do," Londonderry coach Jimmy Lauzon said. "Division I will be strong this season and our schedule brings on a lot of challenges. We'll need to work hard, get better each week and hopefully stay healthy."

Trinity, which lost to Pelham in last year's Division III title game, has experience in the skill positions. The same can be said of Somersworth, last year's Division IV champion. Running back/linebacker Calvin Lambert, the 2021 Division IV Player of the Year as a junior, is among those still with the Hilltoppers, who returned nine starters on each side of the ball.

"We have a strong returning group from last year's championship run, but we have some key positions to fill this season," Somersworth coach Jeremy Lambert said. "The internal competition to fill those spots only helps to elevate the team as a whole. (The players on) this team always embraced hard work and we're excited to get them back on the field and see what they can accomplish together."

Division II is harder to predict since Timberlane, which went undefeated last season, returned to Division I, and Pelham, which went undefeated in Division III, is now in Division II. The Pythons return 15 starters — eight on defense — from their 2021 team.

Milford, Bow, Gilford/Belmont, Souhegan and Plymouth figure to have strong teams in what may be New Hampshire's most competitive division. Milford was the Division II runner-up last season.

"While we bring back some quality athletes, depth will be the big question to answer in 2022," Milford coach Keith Jones said. "Hopefully we can hold our own against the meat of the division."

Coaching turnover

There was a significant amount of coaching turnover in the offseason. Ten teams will enter the 2022 season with a new head coach. Those first-year head coaches are Chad Zibolis (Nashua North), Matt Harris (ConVal), Scott Stearns (Kennett), Herb Hatch (Lebanon), Ron Ross (Epping/Newmarket), David Yazzie (Kearsarge), Tom McCullough (Kingswood), Josh Duford (Stevens), Brendan Johnson (Bishop Brady) and John Daley (Mascoma). Former Stevens head coach Paul Silva is still on staff as the team's defensive coordinator.

Out-of-state challenges

Ten NHIAA teams will play an out-of-state opponent this season. That includes Londonderry, which will travel to Warwick, Rhode Island, to face Bishop Hendricken in Week 2. Bishop Hendricken won its fourth straight Interscholastic State Championship Super Bowl last season by beating La Salle Academy of Providence, 49-40, in the title game. The Hawks are 64-4 in league games during the past 10 seasons and have won 11 state championships in the last 12 years (including the COVID season).

The Lancers aren't the only team playing an out-of-state power:

—Pinkerton Academy will face Brockton, Massachusetts. If you're a certain age, you may remember when Brockton was ranked among the top 10 teams nationally.

—Bedford will take on Thornton Academy of Saco, Maine. Thornton Academy won the program's 10th state championship last season, when it beat Oxford Hills in the Class A championship game. Current head coach Kevin Kezal guided the Trojans to five of those 10 titles.

—Merrimack will open its season at Bonny Eagle of Standish, Maine. The Scots are one of the best programs in the state.

—Exeter will play host to Champlain Valley Union of Hinesburg, Vermont, the Division I runner-up from the Green Mountain State last season.

Other games that feature out-of-state opponents are: Salem vs. Wachusett (Holden, Massachusetts); Concord vs. Rutland, Vermont; Newport vs. Mill River (Clarendon, Vermont); Spaulding vs. Edward Little (Lewiston, Maine), and Dover vs. Sanford, Maine.

The out-of-state games won't count toward NHIAA playoff qualification unless they are needed to break a tie for seeding.

Playing past Thanksgiving

Because the Division I playoff field grew from eight to 13 teams this year, the Division I playoffs will feature an extra week. That means the Division I championship game will be played the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In the past it's been played the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The other championship dates:

Division II: Nov. 19

Division III: Nov. 12

Division IV: Nov. 12

rbrown@unionleader.com