GROTON -- Crusaders head lacrosse coach Rick Arena has been on the Groton-Dunstable sideline since the team played their first season in 2004.
Arena took a year off during his tenure, but he has been an integral part of the program since their infancy.
The Crusaders are 1-2 to begin the season with losses to powerhouse teams such as Algonquin and St. John's. Groton-Dunstable's lone 12-8 victory came in the team's season opener against Lowell High School.
"Going into the season, we had so many question marks," said Arena. "After these first few games we have seen some flashes in the pan that players we knew were going to play at a higher level are. The role players that are coming up; (Matt) Kiessling, (Nick) Irby and (Justin) Cole have been a huge surprise.
"These guys can help and fill in, because we don't have a lot of depth or experience. The first three games showed us that we have guys who can play, and it is a matter of getting them confident in understanding what we are trying to do."
In the opener with Lowell, seniors Matt Manning and junior Austin Hourani tallied a hat trick, and so did junior Quintin Forbes. Groton-Dunstable's strength will continue to come from the starting midfielders.
"Hourani had some flashes last year and we were hoping that he would be steady this year," said Arena. "He has settled in with the first mids along with Manning and Forbes. He is a goal scorer, and a very smart lacrosse player who takes advantage of opportunities."
Groton-Dunstable then traveled to Northboro to take on CMass. juggernaut Algonquin in their Mid-Wach B league opener and fell 6-2.
The Crusaders played their first home game of the season on Tuesday when they took on regional foe North Middlesex.
Groton-Dunstable returns seven starters from last year's club, who finished the season with a record of 8-10. The Crusaders will be captained by senior defenseman Ryan Dawson, Forbes, and Manning.
"Dawson is coming off of a knee injury," said Arena. "When he gets back to 100 percent, he is one of the best defenders in the league. He is a big guy with really solid feet."
Forbes is known for his prowess on the football field as a finesse back, and he does more of the same on the lacrosse field.
"Forbes is probably our most explosive player," said Arena. "Last year he had the most points on the team as a sophomore. He sees the field very well, is an excellent feeder, and he can create offense on his own."
Manning is another multisport athlete who set the school record for tackles in a single game with 28 against Gardner in the fall. The Crusaders are better when Manning is in the midfield.
"Manning is our returning captain," said Arena. "You build a team around a guy like Matt Manning. He gives great effort, and he is our faceoff guy. He can score and play defense. He does it all."
Junior Tristan Lynch will be the fourth captain for the Crusaders, and Arena believes that he is the organizer of the bunch.
"Tristan really worked hard in the offseason, and emerged as a leader of this team," said Arena. "He was elected a captain as a junior, which is rare. We are really going to depend on Tristan's leadership and example to set the tone for our team. He works very hard and adds an aggressive confident element to our team."
Also returning to the Crusaders' starting line is sophomore attacker Zach Cotoni who made a noticeable impact as a freshman starter last season. A.J. Dufrense will be the Crusaders' go-to crease defender, as he will likely earn his minutes slowing down opponent's speedy attackers.
Myles Markham will start at long stick midfield this season, and he has one of the better sticks on the team. Markham is known by his coach and teammates as a groundball machine.
Other promising returning lettermen include junior midfielder and G-D quarterback Mack Eberhardt. Eberhardt is loaded with confidence after lighting up on the gridiron this past fall. Eberhardt will get his fair share of assists and goals this season.
Senior Willie Stewart is an attacker who has worked very hard in practice and is expected to make solid contributions this spring.
In goal for the Crusaders' will be sophomore P.J. Kendall. Groton-Dunstable has been known for their stellar goaltending over the years, but Kendall stepped up and filled in when his team needed him.
"Last year we were in a crisis, and P.J. stepped up," said Arena. "He is learning the position, and he played an outstanding game against Algonquin. He has the capability of stealing goals."
The goal for the season is to make districts, and like pitching in baseball, or a strong offensive line in football, a strong midfield is essential. Senior midfielder Alex Mann will play long-stick mid and has turned into a dependable defender.
"We want to get to districts," said Arena. "There is no reason why this group of guys can't get there. There is no reason why this group of guys can't get there. We are learning every day, and improving every game."