GROTON — “Can you get out of it?” Groton-Dunstable athletic-director Mike McCaffrey asked Phil Rowley in a phone conversation last December.
It was a Friday afternoon and Rowley was driving to North Andover High School to meet with school administrators, a gathering that would put the final stamp on his assistant coaching gig with the boys’ hockey team. Tryouts were Monday.
Rowley had been enjoying his retirement since selling his private company eight years earlier. The freedom let him fill his schedule with only things he enjoyed doing, and coaching was on top of the list.
He pioneered the girls’ lacrosse program at Central Catholic, a post he still holds during the spring, held various jobs helping out the Billerica football program, and coached the Andover High girls’ hockey team until this winter, when he planned to take a new role at North Andover and help Peter Marfione , an old playing buddy.
But McCaffrey, another longtime friend, was calling out of desperation.
Brian Payne , who led the Crusaders to a 52-12-4 record in three seasons, had just submitted his resignation. McCaffrey was hoping Rowley could step in on short notice.
Rowley couldn’t say no.
“They were nice enough to let me go [from North Andover] without bad feelings,” said Rowley, who lives in Billerica and makes a 35-minute commute back and forth to Groton each day.
“So I went out to Groton that Sunday morning, had a meeting with the AD, principal, and superintendent — they had to approve the quick hire without posting the job and waiting for responses to come in — and we did everything.
“We shook hands and on the way out they said, ‘You’re leaving Friday for the Cape. You have four scrimmages. You have to pick your team by then.”
About the same time Rowley got the phone call from McCaffrey, the players who hoped to be part of the G-D hockey team gathered to talk about their future.
This was a team that out-scored opponents 137-21 in its undefeated 2011-2012 season, which culminated in a Division 3A state title.
“At that point we were like, ‘OK, coaches are very important, they teach us everything,’ but to be honest we could take this on ourselves,” said Mike Keating , one of five senior captains.
“We’ve been here three years now, this would be our fourth. I don’t know, we just thought we could do it ourselves.”
Rowley noticed it, too. This team didn’t need him to score goals.
The five senior captains — Keating, Adam Kmetz , C.J. Kenny , Allan Haynes , and Brad Zadrozny — combined to score 52 goals last season.
“We spent 95 percent of the time in the offensive zone,” Keating said. “Defense was just an offense that was a little farther back.”
In his late 60s — he admits he’s lost all motivation to yell and scream — Rowley was content to sit back and watch. If anything, he’d be an overqualified chaperone.
Rowley picked his team and joined the players on a bus to the Cape for a preseason showcase against four Division 1 and 2 programs from Eastern Massachusetts.
The group from Groton — where the roads are windy, every other acre appears unoccupied, and the Country Butcher services locals out of an old barn down Boston Road just a minute’s drive from the Crusaders’ practice facility — wasn’t ready for this.
“Billerica isn’t anything like Groton,” Haynes said, comparing his hometown to his coach’s residence.
The hockey wasn’t what the Crusaders were used to either. The puck stayed in their zone. They chased it around. Eventually a player would gain possession and try to take it up-ice himself. That didn’t work.
“We were running around with our heads cut off,” Kmetz said. “We didn’t really know how we were covering or how to get the puck out of the zone without passing it up the middle or giving them scoring opportunities.”
A week earlier, the Crusaders didn’t think they needed a coach. Now, dozens of tired eyes looked to Rowley for help.
“I don’t think they were in tune to a defensive style of play that you have to play in Division 1/Division 2,” the coach said. “There were a lot of very talented kids that didn’t play a lot of defense.
“It was hard. It was very hard. We had a lot of trouble playing a team a second time after we beat them up. But these kids are talented. So I try to let them play through it.”
Groton-Dunstable, playing in Division 3 for the first time after cruising through Division 3A, has scored 57 fewer goals this season than it did a year ago. But with only 26 goals allowed, the Crusaders (15-1-4) entered Wednesday’s tournament semifinal against Marlborough with a composed defense that has learned from its mistakes.
Learning has been an unexpected surprise for the group that was happy to be orphaned a day before tryouts.
Those in charge can do their best to influence others to follow, but they can’t lead someone who doesn’t want to be led.
The Crusaders didn’t need a leader. They found it themselves.
“Coach let us put the pressure on ourselves,” Keating said. “Which is good, because you shouldn’t need someone to tell you that you have to work hard. We have to put it on ourselves.”
on overtime goal
John Maguire started laughing while he watched the replay of Waltham’s 3-2 overtime win over Arlington Catholic in the Division 1 North quarterfinals.
“Thank God we have Nick Russo ,” the Hawks coach said. “That’s what I’m noticing.”
The senior goalie made 36 saves as the Hawks were out-shot and out-chanced by the explosive Cougars. But a couple opportunistic bounces and a sweet overtime goal by Joe Tully led the way for Waltham, which will take on Winchester in the semifinals Thursday.
“At this point everyone is pretty good,” Maguire said. “We’re hoping to limit their scoring chance and be opportunistic when we get some.”