GROTON -- The snow has yet to melt away from the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders lacrosse fields, but that does not mean head coach Rick Arena isn't any less optimistic about his team's chances to make some noise when the season begins.
The team played its first game on Tuesday afternoon at Algonquin's 911 Field in Southboro.
The Crusaders punched their ticket to the postseason on the final week of the regular season, which featured a double-edged gauntlet of challenging contests against Nashoba Regional and border rival North Middlesex.
Groton-Dunstable dispatched Nashoba on the road before traveling to Townsend on short rest to down North Middlesex and punch its ticket to the postseason. Groton-Dunstable defeated Blackstone Valley Tech in the opening-round game before falling to Grafton Memorial in the quarterfinals.
"We lost two defensemen and an attacking mid," Arena said. "Everyone else is coming back, including our two leading scorers in Quentin Forbes and Austin Hourani -- that's a huge strength for us. Experience for us is another big strength of ours, not necessarily our age, but our playing experience."
The Crusaders' looming concern heading into the season is how fast their young defense will come of age. Shielding the cage will be junior goalkeeper PJ Kendall, who in the eyes of Arena, is back with a new arsenal of weapons.
Kendall is a three-sport athlete, also competing in football and as captain of the newly formed Leominster/G-D cooperative wrestling team at 171 pounds.
"P.J. is probably our most improved player," the ninth-year head coach said. "He worked very hard in the preseason and offseason to improve his skills. We are really counting on him to win some games for us this season. I love a three-sport athlete; they just get what it takes to win."
The Crusaders will be captained by Hourani, Forbes, AJ Dufresne and Tristan Lynch.
Forbes, a preseason All-American selection, compiled a team-high 70 points in 22 games last season.
Hourani, like Forbes, also scored 33 goals a season ago, and Arena expects his offense to remain as productive as it was last season. Collectively, the Crusaders averaged just under eight goals per game.
"Forbes was almost named an All-American last year," Arena said. "He was the second leading scorer in our league to do that as an attacking midfielder -- that's a huge accomplishment. Hourani is a really smart, dependable player and a solid finisher. Tristan Lynch is an absolute grinder. He does all the little things like hustling and scooping up groundballs. He sets the other guys up."
Groton-Dunstable's first-line features the four-headed monster of junior Zach Cotoni, sophomore Ryan Dodge, sophomore Nick Irby and junior Ryan Heinser. Heinser played football in the fall and bulked up and will take the faceoffs again this year and start on the man-up line. Shane Dawson will find his niche at middie. Miles Markham returns at longstick middie and is the most skilled ball-handler on the field.
Senior hockey standout Justin Cole adds tenacity to the midfield. Cole has a "black streak," according to Arena, with his physical presence. Senior Anthony Rufus is pushing for time on defense. Ryan Doody will get the starting nod on defense. AJ Dufresne along with Lynch are the only four-year varsity players. Dufresne is the heart and soul of the defense. Also out there is junior Joey Stewart, who is taking on lacrosse for the first time.
Cotoni and Irby both have the ability to finish and pick their spots, but Dodge is the gear that keeps the Groton-Dunstable attack ticking.
"Experience and depth are two of our biggest strengths," said Arena. "Dodge gets the offense flowing. Cotoni and Irby are definitely our finishers."
If the Crusaders make it to the playoffs this May, they will be ready, having played a rigorous Division 3 schedule. A recent realignment of the divisions will pit Groton-Dunstable against schools of similar enrollment, which Arena feels will be advantageous for his club.
"The playoff system now has two tiers," he said. "It has Division 2 and Division 3 -- now, we will be playing against schools that are like us. Before it was one big hopper and everybody played together."