By Tris Wykes

LEBANON – The Lebanon High football team has lost bulk but gained speed since last year’s appearance in the NHIAA Division III title game. Will it be enough to carry the Raiders back to the playoffs?

The preseason returns look promising, although a reshuffling of the state’s divisions based on enrollment bumped Lebanon back up to Division II. That likely won’t matter until the postseason, however. New Hampshire teams are playing an abbreviated regular-season schedule followed by what are expected to be open-admission playoffs. Then again, it’s all based on how disruptive Covid-19 proves to be.

Lebanon High running back Nyeoti Punni, Jr., runs over blocking bags during Wednesday afternoon’s practice. The Raiders are hoping for similar success to what they created in 2019, when they reached the NHIAA Division II title game.

“We’re more athletic and maybe more talented than a year ago,” said 14th-year Lebanon coach Chris Childs, whose 10-3 team fell to Trinity in the 2019 finals. “We’re definitely faster, but those (seniors) had played a lot of football and were more tuned in. Now, there needs to be more coaching on our part.”

The season opener is anticipated to be Friday, Sept. 25 against visiting Stevens. Other tentative opponents include Hanover, Plymouth, Mascoma, Newport and Fall Mountain. NHIAA schools are being encouraged to play only nearby teams to help limit the possible spread of the virus. That means bigger schools may clash with smaller-enrollment foes, but Childs said he’s wary regardless.

“When we play Mascoma or Fall Mountain, it’s like any other game,” the coach said. “But anytime you play local teams, they’re going to get up for you. Nothing would make them happier than to be a Division III or IV team knocking off a Division II team.”

Lebanon opponents will have to deal with the arrival of touted running back and linebacker Cole Shambo. The Hartland resident who recently transferred from Hartford after Vermont declared in July that its football programs would play only a touch version of the sport. Shambo may be a bit diminutive at 5 foot 10 and 160 pounds, but his intensity is obvious.

“He wants to prove himself at a new school but he’s overworking right now,” Childs said. “He just needs to take a deep breath and it will all come to him.”

Said senior Calvin Bates: “When we’re trying to teach something, he’s the one who quiets guys down so we can learn. Then he goes 100 miles per hour at every practice. I can’t wait until we see him have five down linemen in front of him, creating holes. I know he can do a lot 1-on-1 and in the open field.

The Raiders can also turn to juniors C.J. Childs, Justin Decarlo and Nyeoti Punni for carries. Classmate Jackson Stone, who missed much of last season with a broken leg, is the new quarterback. Tall and wiry, the son of onetime Lebanon lineman Derek Stone has mostly played receiver and defensive back the past two years, but was a signal-caller as a younger competitor.

“Other kids may lack energy at times, but Jack brings that every day,” said Bates, a receiver and safety. “He’s not the most vocal kid, but he’s improved around the huddle. He didn’t need the loud voice as an underclassman, but he’ll step up. I’ve seen him do it before.”

Stone must replace graduated standout Jon Willeman and Shambo is stepping in for Wade Rainey, who’s also moved on to college. Cole Ames and Caleb Smith were forceful as ends on offense and defense and Mason Adams and Noah Tyler were stout in the middle for the 2019 Raiders. All graduated earlier this year, but Bates said this year’s upperclassmen have battled alongside each other for almost a decade.

“We’ve had chemistry between all of us pretty much since preschool,” Bates said, noting that the current juniors and seniors produced separate, undefeated youth football seasons, the juniors outscoring their sixth-grade opponents, 432-6. Those numbers are not a typographical error.

Lebanon’s line returns three regular starters in juniors Zach Whitcomb (center) and Cameron Davio (guard) and senior Josh Mondragon (tackle). Juniors Steve Miller and Connor Brown saw some time last fall, as did senior Jon Carrier. Whitcomb won’t intimidate anyone getting off the bus, yet he’s the unit’s key player.

“He asks all the right questions and he tells everyone who’s pulling when and makes sure everyone’s in the right spot,” said an admiring Childs. “People made fun of him last year as the smallest center in the division, but I’ll take him any day because he’s smart and strong and he busts his butt.”

Childs said he hasn’t yet brought up last season’s final loss. He’s more worried about his players being exposed to illness through ill-advised trips to hot spots or large gatherings of family and friends.

“We just want to get through this Covid thing and make it to our first game so we have an opportunity to play,” Childs said.

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