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A finishing touchPanthers looking for killer instinct as stretch run approaches

AYER - Winning is becoming a routine for the Ayer Shirley High School football team. But if the gridiron gang wishes to be a contender in this year’s MIAA playoffs, the next challenge will be learning how to close out contests. “We got a little complacent and let Gardner back into the game,” said Coach Bill Wright following a 30-24 victory over the rival Wildcats. “This team has had a lot of losses over the past two years. You learn how to put people away by winning. It’s a mentality that takes time to learn.” Wright, an assistant to the Gardner sidelines for the past three seasons, was pleased with the Panthers’ effort Friday evening. Ayer Shirley improved to 3-1, tripling its win total of the past two seasons. “We had a goal at the beginning of the season to get better with each game,” said Wright, who has handled the role admirably after taking over the team just three weeks before the opening kickoff. “We’re making big strides and progressing each week.” The new coach was especially complimentary of second-year signal caller Brian Holmes. The 5-foot-9 junior quarterback rushed for 111 yards and four scores, netting a third-quarter trifecta that vaulted the Panthers on a 22-0 run to start the second half. “Brian had a great night,” the coach said. “He sees the field and anticipates the defense so well. He’s making all the right reads and all the right calls right now.” The Wildcats kept Holmes sidelined for much of the first half, compiling lengthy scoring drives of 17 and 12 plays, respectively, to give the visitors an early 12-0 advantage. “Midway through the second, we kind of put it all together and played really well against the run and the pass for two quarters,” said Wright, heaping praise on the efforts of junior end Robbie Weeks, whose 13 tackles led the Ayer Shirley defense. The Panthers’ responded with a 28-0 run, scoring before half and notching three consecutive tallies after the break. Junior tailback Cam Marshall keyed the efforts, totaling 111 yards on the ground, including a pair of rushing conversions. Classmate Ryan Marchand accounted for the Panthers’ other two-point try, as the team found success operating behind the blocking prowess of junior tackle John Lannaconey. “When the skill kids get going, everything else just falls into place,” Coach Wright said. “Defensively, we’re getting better. We struggle at times because we don’t have great size. We’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense.” That Ayer-Shirley toughness will be tested Friday when the Panthers travel to Quabbin Regional High School for a 7 o’clock kickoff. Quabbin is 3-1, including a 14-6 victory over Gardner - the combatants’ lone common opponent. “Their offensive line is big and they’ve got a really good tailback,” said Wright, referencing senior runner Owen Faulha, who is fresh off a 241-yard, two-touchdown showing in a 38-27 win over Murdock this past Friday. “He’s a big boy, close to 200 pounds. We know they’re gonna come downhill at us.” “But,” he countered, “we have a little more speed than they do. It’s really going to come down to execution and not turning the ball over.” And putting the hosts to bed early should the opportunity present itself. “We’re not to the point where we put people away, but we’re improving each week,” he said. “Winning the league, making the playoffs - if those goals come to fruition, great. But I don't want the kids to get too far ahead of themselves. I want them to play week to week for the betterment of themselves, the team and the program.”

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