GROTON -- Groton-Dunstable hockey head coach Phil Rowley was fortunate when he took over the Crusaders' hockey program after the sudden resignation of former head coach Bryan Payne.

Rowley commanded the Crusaders (last year: 16-2-4,6-0-2 Roy Conf.) into the Div. 3 CMass Finals, where it fell in a shootout to Wachusett for the second-consecutive time in the 2013 season. Rowley's Crusaders did the unthinkable last year, when it captured its first-ever Roy Conference title after making the move from Div. 3A, where it brought home the state title in 2012.

Last weekend, the Crusaders made their annual preseason trip to Cape Cod, where it faced off against Div. 1 powers, Barnstable, Falmouth and Bourne.

"Barnstable is always competing for its division and the top of Division 1," Rowley said. "We faced some really good teams down there. All-in-all, we are very happy with how we look this season."

Groton-Dunstable's strong point will be its defense. The Crusaders return their stalwart Roy Conference All-Star goalkeeper, Jason Robes, who made 265 saves a season ago. Also returning at the blue line, are senior captain Connor Maguire and Anthony Resca. Maguire is coming off a quadriceps injury he suffered in the fall. Maguire is optimistic about his team's chances this winter.

"It's going to be a young team this year," Maguire said. "We graduated a lot of seniors. We have a lot of sophomores have obviously stepped up. We had a couple of freshman who stepped up and made the team in Mikey Bermingham who is a freshman defenseman and Christopher Lattini at forward. It's going to be a good season-- a lot of speed, but not a lot of size."

This year's installment of Groton-Dunstable hockey features just seven seniors and one junior. Groton-Dunstable graduated its top performers in Adam Kmetz, Bradley Zadrozny and Allan Haynes, but Rowley is hopeful that the team's youth will mature quickly.

"Birmingham is one of the headsiest kids I have seen at that age," the coach said. "I wish he was a little bigger, but his size is very deceiving. He does a lot of good things. We have a couple of freshman, a couple of sophomores and a junior all competing for ice time."

Groton-Dunstable received its biggest turnout in program history this season. Rowley had to whittle his roster down from 55 men. Last season, the Crusaders had roughly 30 kids between the jayvee and varsity program.

"It's a very competitive team," Rowley said. "Boy, it was nice to see that many kids come out because they were all very talented. There were kids who were competing right away.

It was the first year I had to cut some kids. It wasn't the most pleasant thing I had to do as a coach. We just didn't have enough room for them. Hopefully, in the next two years, we will be able to field a freshmen team."

The Crusaders will be captained in 2013 by seniors Maguire, Justin Cole and Josh Rabbit. Cole scored five goals and notched nine assists last season.

Rabbit also netted five goals with seven assists in 2012.

"Jason Robes is unbelievable," Maguire said of his goalie. "We are going to have to rely heavily on him this year to step up. He has shown he can do that -- we are not that worried. A few kids came back playing juniors. A lot of kids played hockey in the off season. We plan to hit the ground running, and waste no time getting our legs back.

For the seniors from last year's CMass finalist team, the memory of losing in the shootout still replays in their minds.

"That was tough," the captain said. "We have a lot of returning guys. We are going to use that against, especially Wachusett and get back at them. Also, if we get to this point, we know what we are going to do to win it earlier. It gets the guys fired up when you come off a tough loss. I think we are definitely going to make a good run."