By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

LEBANON – Keegan Fredette rumbled down the Lebanon High football team’s practice field Saturday afternoon. The junior lineman, not known for deft coordination, was out in space and under the gun. If he caught the Jack Stone pass sailing his way, he and his teammates would escape further sprints.

Drop the ball and the suffering would continue.

Lebanon High’s Keegan Fredette hauls in a Jack Stone pass Saturday. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Fredette, a youth baseball and soccer player, reached up and out, snaring the ball awkwardly but securely and provoking boisterous cheers from the rest of the Raiders. Swallowed into the their midst, the tackle received congratulatory smacks on the helmet and shoulders, a grin visible through his face mask. 

Lebanon expects to enjoy many such celebrations this fall. The Raiders return a senior-loaded lineup from a 2020 team that had its championship plans derailed by Covid-19 exposure after an NHIAA Division II quarterfinal victory at Bow. One of the Falcons, who played extensively in that game, tested positive shortly thereafter, ending Lebanon’s season.

“The way it ended last year was a sour point, for sure,” said 15th-year coach Chris Childs, whose squad was 6-0. “It’s nice to be back out here and put it behind us a bit. I’ve told the kids to enjoy it day to day and don’t take anything for granted.”

The challenge is that local and statewide observers have long predicted Lebanon winning the 2021 state title, the byproduct of a senior class that’s often dominated since the youth level. 

Senior quarterback and safety Stone is one of New Hampshire’s best players and C.J. Childs and Cole Shambo, who play both running back and linebacker, are an undersized but dangerous duo on either side of the ball. They’re joined at linebacker by classmate Justin DeCarlo.

Talented sprinter Nyeoti Punni is slated to bounce around the backfield and slot on offense and man a cornerback position on defense. The line features three seniors in center Zach Whitcomb and guards Cameron Davio and Connor Brown, each of whom will play both ways. Classmates Stephen Miller and Sebastian Yates are also experienced in the trenches and in the mix to replace a pair of graduated tackles.

“We’ve had this same group growing up and a lot of the same coaches every step of the way,” Whitcomb said. “We haven’t gotten a championship up to this point, so this is kind of a last dance-type mentality. We have to get it done this year or never, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Lebanon High players, including Zach Whitcomb, front and center, listen to their coaches speak after practice. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Stone has a strong arm and good touch on his throws, but Lebanon has always been a running team under Chris Childs. Pounding the ball between the tackles with C.J. Childs (his son) and Shambo is likely to be the most popular play call, but Punni has the speed to turn the corner and Stone is a magical slasher – provided his teammates can get out in front for initial blocks. 

“We know we’re Jack’s supporting cast, but during summer passing tournaments he couldn’t roll out or run and we got a taste of our other guys making plays,” Whitcomb said. “It went really well.”

The Raiders figure to surrender few points, but new cornerbacks Punni and Sawyer Beaulieu will be tested. Punni can’t take his speed for granted and become overly aggressive, while Beaulieu is a gritty and athletic junior, but also one of the area’s shortest players. Thankfully, he has Stone over his shoulder and No. 12 is a scoring threat every time he hones in on a foe’s pass or punt.

Lebanon reached the Division III title game two years ago and features half a dozen players who won last winter’s Division II basketball crown. The experience, poise and familiarity generated by those runs is invaluable.

“We know what to do and say to each other in various situations,” Whitcomb said. “Knowing how to handle the pressure is the advantage we take into the big games.”

A key variable is Lebanon’s health and depth. Will it have enough of both?

“Stone is the one guy they can’t lose,” said Hanover coach Shawn Cavallaro. “He makes everything else work.”

Said Whitcomb: “We’ve done a good job getting the younger guys ready. You’re not worried that someone is going to take your position, but in case you go down, you want your position to have a solid replacement.”

Lebanon High quarterback and safety Jackson Stone. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Offensive and defensive end Tanner Ames is a junior, as is Fredette, but after that, there’s little proven talent outside the senior class. The return to football of tennis standout and senior Mason Arado helps, but the likelihood is the Raiders don’t look like a playoff team after the current campaign.

Which begs the question: is this Chris Childs’ final season at the helm? The bench boss and Lebanon graduate said that’s an announcement for another time, but it’s hard to imagine he’s not tempted to watch his son play Division III college football while free of what seem to be ever-increasing coaching demands.

“It’s become a year-round job and I have only myself to blame,” Childs said with a rueful smile, estimating that 90 percent of his players attended summer weightlifting and conditioning sessions, a high for his tenure. 

“But it really has to be that way for your team to be successful in Division II. When you have kids who want to work and get better in the offseason, how do you tell them no?”

You don’t, of course. Not when a group of teenagers has displayed uncommon maturity, friendship and focus. The payoff looms, but collection is no guarantee.

Saturday’s drills concluded and the coaches offered thoughts to the kneeling players. Assistant Doug Drew spoke passionately when it was his turn.

“Half to three-quarters of this team is on a mission,” he said, looking pointedly at the group’s younger members. “They’re trying to make amazing memories. The rest of you can’t just be along for the ride.”

Whitcomb, a three-year starter who had to overcome a debilitating heel condition just to take the field earlier in his high school career, is certainly no passenger.

“We like to practice every day with a championship mentality and we’ve been doing this for three years now,” he said. “We hold ourselves to the highest standard possible. We’ve had a chip on our shoulder for two years. It’s a big motivation.”

Notes: Stone is being recruited seriously by Holy Cross and the University of New Hampshire as a defensive back… Noah Mekus, last year’s football placekicker, has signed up for soccer, the sport the senior played previously at the school… Lebanon will host Plymouth and Laconia for preseason scrimmages before opening at Manchester West on Sept. 3… Riddell, one of the country’s leading football helmet manufacturers, reported last month that one of its suppliers experienced a facility fire. This has limited Riddell’s manufacturing capabilities and required the company to decline orders for the time being.

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Lebanon High’s Nyeoti Punni, right, is one of the fastest players in the state. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.