GROTON -- The defending 2012 Mid-Wach C league champion Crusaders will be tested when it opens the season tonight at home against Gardner.
When the two teams last met, it took an overtime screen pass from then junior quarterback Mack Eberhardt to Matt Manning to lift the Crusaders.
But those two cast members are no longer with the program. The star quarterback, Eberhardt, moved with his family to Hawaii, where his father is stationed with the U.S. Army.
Sixth-year head coach Derek Asadoorian is well aware that he was his work cut out for him in 2013 with 23 freshmen and just seven seniors on the depth chart.
"Joey Stewart, Ronnie Peck and Drew Moore are the only starters returning on offense playing the same position," the coach said. "There are three returning starters in the same position. Quintin Forbes started for us last year, but he has moved to quarterback."
Forbes rushed for nine touchdowns and averaged 12.8 yards-per-carry at halfback. Forbes has some big shoes to fill, as he replaces Eberhardt as the Crusaders' signal caller this fall. This is the second-year in a row Groton-Dunstable has had to replace its quarterback prematurely.
"I have a short list of players who have what I call a very high football IQ and Quintin is one of those on that list," Asadoorian said. "To be able to have him step in and take over duties for quarterback, to have him ready, willing and able to take the reins, to have his intelligence is just huge. He is just a tough kid and works hard."
Stewart will get the start at tight-end and Moore will assume the wide-receiver duties. On the offensive line, Peck remains on offense at the left guard position. Joining Peck will be Ben Lutkevich who has moved to guard from center. Junior David Fei will pull double-duty at both right offensive and defensive tackle. Sophomore Andy Femia will hunker down at the left tackle position.
Leading Groton-Dunstable into battle will be Stewart, Tristan Lynch and Forbes.
"They are all great kids," the coach said of his captains. "They work really hard. Joey Stewart and Tristan Lynch are two of the most dedicated kids I have.
"Lynch didn't get to see a lot of time on varsity last year, but now he has his shot and is on the field for 97 percent of the plays. It's a testament to how hard he worked over the summer."
Junior Joey Orlando returns to the Crusaders' defense at the outside linebacker position.
"He got a little bit of fullback work when Matt Manning was out at the beginning of last season," the coach said. "He has taken over that role as a junior. He is a real hard worker."
P.J. Kendall and A.J. Dufresne are expected to be key pieces for Groton-Dunstable's defensive line.
"AJ is a senior who didn't play last year due to an illness," Asadoorian said. "He is really excited to contribute this year after missing all of last year. PJ is somebody we knew was a key piece for us to be ready to play varsity football. He has gotten a lot of experience in the preseason so far."
Junior Ryan Heinser has made the transition from lacrosse to football and joins the Crusaders as a first-year player with a lot of upside.
Junior national level sprinter Evan Lexo rejoins the team after a one-year absence.
"He is a speedster but he is still green," Asadoorian said. "He played as a freshman but took his sophomore year off to concentrate on track, but he missed football. He wanted to come back. He is finding a niche here and there. He is going to contribute on offense and defense, if not start at wide-out."
Corey Romich, a six-foot-four, 180 pound sophomore will be the Crusaders' backup quarterback, but he will most likely see time as a wide-receiver.
Groton-Dunstable's competition has changed with regional foe North Middlesex added to the Crusaders 2013 schedule.
"We are going up against the big boys now," Asadoorian said. "We are no longer at the top of the league. We are going to be at the bottom in terms of size.
"Certainly, it is going to be a challenge for us being young. It is really up to the guys, but what we are trying to hone in on are aggressiveness and toughness. Those are really the keys for us making any kind of run at a playoff spot."