Cougars eye postseason run

  • The ConVal football team opened up fall practice on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The ConVal football team opened up fall practice on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The ConVal football team opened up fall practice on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The ConVal football team opened up fall practice on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • ConVal football vs. Merrimack
  • ConVal football vs. Merrimack

In his first season at ConVal, head coach Ryan McCartney took a team that accounted for just one win in each of the previous two seasons to one that came within an extra point of a .500 season.

The Cougars finished the 2012 season with a 4-6 record, dropping the season finale in overtime to Pembroke after having what would have been a go ahead extra point blocked in the final minutes of regulation.

A win in the final game would have not only secured a .500 season for the first since 2009, but also ended McCartney’s first year on a four-game winning streak.

And while that was last year and the departure of 13 seniors makes the 2013 squad in need of replacements at key positions, it was a huge step in the right direction for a program that has only reached the playoffs twice in 21 seasons.

McCartney hopes that this year will lead to a third postseason appearance.

“We have the ability to do good things,” said McCartney. “I certainly think we can improve on a 4-6 record. There’s no reason why, if we put things together, that we can’t be a playoff team. We have high expectations this year.”

After last season, the NHIAA changed the entire landscape of football in the state. In 2012, there were six divisions and six state champions, but that has now been cut in half with a complete divisional realignment.

The Cougars played last year and many seasons before that in Division III with powerhouse programs like Souhegan, Milford and Portsmouth.

All four programs have now moved in to the 20-team Division II that is now divided into four conferences. ConVal will play in the D-II West Conference with Hollis/Brookline, Kearsarge, Sanborn and last year’s Division V champion Monadnock.

“It gives us the opportunity to do some good things,” said McCartney of the new schedule.

Sanborn and Hollis/Brookline are the only two teams in the West Conference that ConVal played last year — both of which resulted in wins. The Cougars play four conference games and then have five match-ups with other Division II teams, including Milford, Souhegan, Lebanon, Kingswood and John Stark. Four of ConVal’s nine games are at home, including the opener next Friday versus Lebanon. But they do not have to play Portsmouth or Goffstown, which squared off in the Division III championship game last year and accounted for two of ConVal’s six losses.

“Some of the heavy hitters are not on our schedule,” said McCartney.

The playoff system this year now consists of a conference title game between the top two teams in each conference. The winners of those four games in Division II will advance to the semifinals for a chance to play for the divisional crown.

While there are a lot of spots to fill from last year, McCartney has a plan. He already began thinking about the process of filling out the starting lineup toward the tail end of last year. And so far he thinks the Cougars could be even better than last year. The only thing the team lacks is varsity game experience.

“We have 10 more kids than last year and they’re capable. They’re not just bodies,” said McCartney.

Senior Riordan McCole, who played most of last year at quarterback, is moving to the back field to a running back position to help make up for the loss of three talented running backs. McCole will be joined by junior Dakota Nute, as the Cougars return to the power I formation

With McCole making the switch, junior John Crowley takes over at quarterback and gives McCartney a lot of options. Crowley is a dual threat quarterback that can run and throw with accuracy and will allow for ConVal to keep opposing defenses guessing.

“He’s a little more mobile and has a good arm,” said McCartney. “We knew when John came up from JV he was our guy.”

On the outside, McCartney has a wide range of options at the wide receiver and tight end positions, which will also allow Crowley to flourish in the passing game. Juniors Nik Maciejewski and Mitch Hoffman, along with sophomores Antoine Halsey and Brandon Carland and freshman Liam Baldwin give ConVal its most depth at the receiver position in years.

“We certainly have some skill there. We are more dangerous than last year,” said McCartney. “We have got to have a passing threat.”

Senior Sean Stinehour and junior Connor Smith will handle the tight end position. Junior fullbacks Matt Moore and Isaiah Taylor will help with the running game

The offensive line was a question mark as senior Jordan Loll is the lone returner at left guard, but McCartney has faith in the group that includes Loll’s younger brother Dan at center.

“We’re still a run first team,” said McCartney. “But we want to be able to mix it up and do what we want to do.”

On defense, the linebacker core is deep and talented. The Loll brothers, along with junior Chris LaRoche, Moore and Taylor will handle the inside duties, while McCole, Stinehour, Smith and senior Gavin Chamberlain will patrol the outsides.

Seniors Zach Davis and Ethan Cross are slated for the defensive tackle positions. The secondary will consist of Carland and Josh Bartsch at corner, along with senior Corey Barrett at free safety and Maciejewski and junior Tyler Sones at strong safety.

With only seven seniors, McCartney won’t have to fill nearly as many spots next year. While he is excited about what next year will bring with this year’s crop of 20 juniors, the second year coach is focused on winning now.

“We are young, but we are talented,” said McCartney. “We’re a better team than last year.”

And if things go to plan, the Cougars should do just fine.

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