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Ayer Shirley 2023 football preview

The Ayer Shirley High School football team has a championship to defend. However, the majority of those who helped capture the Mid Wach E League crown won’t be here to navigate that title defense this fall. After posting the highest program win total (seven) in nearly two decades, 14 Panthers graduated, leaving only two starters - James Gauntlett and Wyatt Gallant - to return. “These are two completely different teams,” said Coach Bill Wright, who will patrol the sideline for a 23rd season of varsity football in Massachusetts. “Before, we had a group that had tons of playing experience. Now, this team has very little. But we’re going to be okay. We’re going to win some football games.” Wright was quick to praise the newcomers for a strong commitment to offseason weightlifting and training, including a 7-on-7 passing league this summer. It was there Ayer Shirley found a new quarterback to replace Central Mass. All-Star Brian Holmes, who has taken his talents to Ave Maria University in Southern Florida. Initially, Wright toyed with the idea of moving Gauntlett, a standout inside runner, under center. But halfway through 7-on-7s emerged a 6-foot-3, 170-pound junior with the ability to make would-be tacklers miss. “Bobby Manchester will be our starting quarterback,” Coach Wright said. “He played a lot at the youth level but didn’t come out until now. He’s a really good athlete and he’s picked things up quickly. It allows us to play James in his more natural position and give us two threats in the backfield running the ball.” The Panthers have attempted to simplify the offense, testing out a limited playbook in scrimmages against Monty Tech, Gardner and Lowell Catholic. “Our [attack] is going to be a little vanilla to start with,” the coach said. “The biggest thing is having the kids understand the concept of what the defense is trying to do. It’ll be a work in progress, but we’ll get there.” Defensively, Wright expects a big season out of senior standout Kondwani Obison. The lineman showed flashes of brilliance, emerging as a key contributor during the title run, before being sidelined by a knee injury during the 2022 MIAA postseason. After a very productive rehabilitative offseason, Wright envisions Obison disrupting offensive backfields all season long. “He put on over 20 pounds of muscle,” Wright said of Obison, who now stands at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds. “He’s just a force. His knee is getting better each week and he’s moving better as we go. We’re going to use him inside and outside.” Ayer Shirley had nearly three dozen competitors come out for the preseason. The roster size currently stands in the “low 30s”, Coach Wright said. “It’s about the same as last year,” he said. “We didn’t get the bump we expected from winning the league. But it is what it is. You just gotta play the hand you’re dealt. And thus far, the kids have been absolutely great.” With so many starting jobs open, the Panthers have enjoyed a variety of in-house competitions this preseason. Junior J.T. Bresnahan asserted himself as an offensive playmaker that will see targets alongside split ends Dom Garabozzi and Isaiah Melumba. Sophomore Manny Gambino has also earned the right to spell Gauntlett as the backup running back, showcasing a knack for catching passes out of the backfield. Gambino hopes to find running lanes behind a fast-improving offensive line that features seniors Zach Thomas and Russell Kilkenny, as well as juniors Aiden Trent and Joey Clayton. “You can see development so much quicker this year,” Coach Wright said. “A kid may have a bad day on Monday. But then you’ll see him shake it off over the next few days and really grow by the end of the week.” The veteran skipper is determined to have his team focus on measuring themselves against who they were yesterday, and not against the successes of the previous graduating class. “Life’s hard,” he said. “It’s not easy going to school for eight hours a day, and then going to two hours of practice afterwards. So we might get on a kid a little bit, but it’s also important to make them laugh every day. We just try to keep it positive. Keep it light.” Currently, Ayer Shirley has eight scheduled regular-season contests, with hopes of adding a Week Seven opponent for a game Oct. 20. Six of the eight games will be played on the road, with a Week Three contest against Gardner Sept. 22 being the only other home game. “Ehhh, it’s just the way the schedule fell this year,” the coach said. “We’ll be okay. Sometimes being on the road actually takes the pressure off the kids.” The Panthers will host Littleton in the season opener Sept. 8 at 7 p.m.. Ayer Shirley beat the Tigers, 21-14, in the final contest of 2022. This year, the Panthers will play Littleton twice, including a Thanksgiving rematch. “A lot of schools are doing this where you play you open up against your Thanksgiving opponent and you play them again for the holiday,” Wright explained, citing rivalry, and the conveniences of travel expenses. “I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but the more I think about it, it’s a good gauge for your team to see how far you’ve come in 10 weeks.” “We’re going to go out there, do our best, and let the chips fall where they may,” he added.


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