GROTON -- Head coach Mark Hennelly enters his 13th season at the helm of the Groton-Dunstable girls' basketball program. Hennelly, despite graduating 1,000 point scorer, Rachel McCarron, is very optimistic about how his team looks a week-and-a-half into the preseason.
"Whatever the win total is this year, you're going to enjoy this team," said Hennelly. "This team sells out -- they just get after it. It's a thrill being in the gym with them.
The Lady Crusaders graduated six seniors from last year's 8-12 squad. Groton-Dunstable features just two seniors in Celina Antonellis and Kim Contonio.
"Celina has tremendous vocal leadership," Hennelly said. "She's going to be in charge of setting our offense. She does a great job at managing our offense. She is a great on-ball defender. We are going to need her to apply a lot of pressure. She's an excellent penetrator from the perimeter. She is just gritty -- this kid will run through walls."
Junior Lindsay Werner will serve as the team's second captain this season. Werner is the Lady Crusaders' purest returning scorer.
"She is certainly able to drain the three-point shot," he said. "She certainly has the ability to penetrate from the perimeter. She is extremely creative and comes off the perimeter well. She is our most gifted scorer."
Freshman forward Hanna Van Pelt has been a pleasant surprise for the Hennelly and the Lady Crusaders in the preseason. Van Pelt showed that she is wise before her years in the team's trip down to Cape Cod for a trio of scrimmages. In Saturday's scrimmage against Barnstable, Van Pelt drove the lane, coast-to-coast and laid the ball in the hoop, fearlessly.
"I am amazed at how quickly she picked up our system," he said. "She is strong and fearless on the boards. She is extremely coachable."
Five-foot-eight sophomore Jenna Plausse has really impressed Hennelly in the early season with how much her game has improved since last year.
"I knew she was going to be a very good player, but I have been overwhelmed by her strength and aggressiveness," Hennelly said. "She is an inside-out player, who is not very tall, but she is going to play a lot inside for us. From what I have seen from Plausse and Van Pelt, they have really taken things up a notch."
Junior Melyssa Langell is a multifaceted press defender with good instincts for the ball. If the Lady Crusaders find themselves in a pinch at the point guard position, Langell has what it takes to get the job done. Langell is in just her second season on varsity.
Five-foot-10 center junior Alex Pray and Langell will likely shuffle between the power forward and center positions based on the given game situations.
"Alex has vastly improved her inside post moves," Hennelly said. "She is much more aggressive blocking shots. She has the ability to block shots. I think the big thing is seeing her confidence sky rocketing. I think we are going to see a lot of what she is really capable of."
Contonio will be the sixth man for Groton-Dunstable in the 2013-2014 season. Contoni is an unselfish player, who poses a threat from the outside. Contoni has worked on her one-on-one moves in the offseason. Contonio will be a highly valued weapon off the bench for the Lady Crusaders.
Finding her niche off the pine is Val Lutkevich. Lutkevich makes up for her lack of size with her tenacity and grit inside. Nicole Moody, Kara Jussaume, Nicki Wilkinson and Nicole Georges will all see spot-play in key situations.
"The exciting thing is that I know we are going to have a vastly improved team by February," the coach said. "In a week-and-a-half seeing them -- it's been a long time since i have seen a group of girls work this hard. Their overall commitment to the team is exciting. Our goal is to get to the playoffs and hopefully, by then, we will be ready to knock some people out."
Groton-Dunstable opens up its season tonight at border rival Tyngsborough at 5:30 p.m.