GROTON -- According to Groton-Dunstable head lacrosse coach Rick Arena, senior captain Matt Manning is the driving force behind the Crusaders' successful season. Manning captained Groton-Dunstable to the quarterfinals of the CMass. playoffs where they ultimately fell to Grafton.

"He is the heart and soul of our team," the coach said. "He was struggling with some illnesses and sicknesses, so it was not an easy year for him personally, but when it was time to play, he was there. He was a dependable player throughout the season."

Manning started to experience chronic headaches about four years ago, but he refused to let his illness stop him from being an important part of the Crusaders' success.

"He is a great role model to some of the younger kids in terms of how to fight through things," said Arena. "He is one of the more mentally tough guys that I have coached. To see him battle through some of the things he battled through was amazing."

Manning cites the upbringing by his family as the source for his mental toughness.

"That is just how I was brought up by my father and brother," Manning said.

Manning came back after facing another bout of chronic headaches before the Crusaders' game late in the season with Shrewsbury. Groton-Dunstable eventually lost in 5 OT's, but Manning logged the most minutes.

"He always put the team and his teammates first," the coach said. "A prime example: He was still a bit under the weather for the Shrewsbury game. He played every second of that five-overtime game. To see him just will himself through those overtime periods was just amazing. Being such a well-conditioned athlete and his mental toughness really make him such a special player."

Manning said that he remembers logging 18 consecutive minutes at midfield during that game.

"It is more mental than it is physical," said Manning on the grind an overtime game takes. "It is that running back, going from offense to defense. I do it for my team. I care about my team and I care about my coach. We are a tight-knit group."

The Crusaders thought so highly of Manning and his drive on and off the field, that they named him captain two years in a row. Manning joined the Groton-Dunstable varsity program as a freshman and learned from star attacker Danny Eipp, who helped lead Team USA's U19 program to a world title.

"During my freshman year I was brought up on varsity," Manning said. "That really gave me a chance to learn from kids like Danny Eipp and a lot of those older kids."

When getting ready during the offseason, Manning works with his older brother, Jake, who is a volunteer assistant coach for the Crusaders' football team.

Jake played linebacker at Merrimack College and compiled workout plans for Matt to improve his overall fitness. Matt said that the training for football compared with lacrosse is very similar.

"Football was my main reason for working out in the first place," said Manning. "That working out transfers into lacrosse. I think the thing that's really undermined in lacrosse versus football is the lifting. I think a lot of people get the running and conditioning aspect. Getting size helps a lot, too."

Manning does not let his success on the field flood his ego. He remains unassuming and even-keeled, according to Arena.

"He is a really soft-spoken kid," said Arena. "If you talk to him you would never expect him to be such a fierce competitor. That's what I admire about him. Off the field he is able to be a gentleman, but yet on the field he goes through this transformation where when it is time to play, he's there."

Arena is the Groton-Dunstable dean of students and Manning interned in his coach's office helping with general clerical duties. Through that internship, Manning said he gained a deeper understanding of what Arena does when he is not patrolling the Groton-Dunstable sidelines.

"I have an enormous amount of respect for my head coach and my assistant coaches," said Manning. "I got really close with Mr. Arena. I helped him out the whole second semester of school, though it was not just working for him, it was becoming friends with him. You gain a lot of respect for someone when you see how much work they put in through school, doing his job as dean of students and coaching lacrosse."

Manning will attend Bridgewater State University in the fall, where he plans to study criminal justice.

"As hard a competitor as he is on the field, he is just as nice of a young man," said Arena. "I was really proud of him in the way he conducted himself both on and off the field. He certainly left a legacy here at Groton-Dunstable."

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