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TOWNSEND — Just when North Middlesex hockey was getting used to competing in Division 3A, winning the state title last season against Wahconah by a score of 12-0, it gets bumped up to Division 3.

The Patriots replace Fitchburg/Monty Tech, which takes NM’s spot in 3A as a result of declining involvement in its program.

Third-year head coach Mike McCarthy has seen progression from his men since taking the job from Brendan McNabb, who handed over the reins after a long tenure at the helm.

McCarthy will be the first to tell you that McNabb pointed the team in the right direction long before he arrived on the scene.

“Every year we have chipped away, and we are proud that we are back in Division 3,” McCarthy said. “We are very proud of the fact that we will be able to compete with the teams we were able to do so against years ago. I think if we stayed in 3A, there were going to be games that we could win, if we didn’t play our best.

“We are where we should be now,” he said. “If we play our best, we will have a chance to make the playoffs and beyond. We just can’t have any off nights.”

There are a lot of unknowns stepping into a new league, but according to McCarthy, the team is full of nervous excitement for the season to begin.

“We will get to play Groton-Dunstable twice this year, so that’ll be nice for the rivalry,” he said. “We were 3-0 in crossover games against Groton-Dunstable, Leominster and Fitchburg last year, so we will see what that translates to this year.”

North Middlesex graduated eight players from last year’s roster including their leading scorer, Danny McNamara, goaltender Ryan Twomey and top defenseman PJ Dupre.

The Patriots will have to find someone to fill the skates of Twomey, who was a Coughlin Conference All-Star selection. Currently, seniors Marc Frederick and Ben Wharram are battling for the goaltending spot

“We have two very, very capable goaltenders to fill in,” McCarthy said. “Those two could share time, but either one of them has the ability to run with it. They might be situational goalies, but they have very complimentary styles. They’re both very good goalies.”

North Middlesex’s strongest attribute will be its depth at the forward positions.

“We are almost four-to-five lines deep,” McCarthy said. “We have a lot of good players at that position.”

The Patriots will be strong on defense, yet again, with three of its four defensemen returning.

“We should compete and be in most every game,” McCarthy said. “If we play the type of game we are capable of, we will be fine. I am interested to see how we stack up against the teams in our league.”

The Patriots are confident that they have what it takes to make the tournament again.

Last year’s championship team had a great mix of individual personalities, but this year’s installment is being dubbed as the lunch pail brigade by its head coach.

“These guys are your typical battlers and grinders,” he said. “We are going to start with the guy with the big pads and work it to the offensive end. Our forwards that are coming back and those we are adding should be able to put the puck in the net on most nights. I can’t wait to get the season rolling.”

North Middlesex opens its season tomorrow night in a rematch of last season’s epic Division 3A Central Mass. finals game with Lunenburg/Ayer Shirley at 2:30 p.m. at the Wallace Civic Center in Fitchburg.

Follow Ed Niser on Twitter/Tout: @EdNiser.

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