Editor’s Note: The Tracker is offering this story in free view so that families that are in tough financial circumstances still have the opportunity to see their students accomplishments. We ask that those with the means please subscribe for $25 per year to finance local content that celebrates the accomplishments of the community. Don’t hesitate to shoot us an email once subscribed to let us know what content you want to see. The Tracker is a small woman-owned business based locally in Lunenburg.
AYER – The end of the season is winding into gear for the Ayer Shirley girls’ basketball team, and to this point it's been a tale of two halves. The effort and drive was always there which helped the Panthers rebound from a tough start to be in firm contention for a postseason bid.
It has been the tale of two seasons in a sense for the Ayer Shirley girls’ basketball team. After a brutal schedule and some difficult injuries to start the season, which saw a 1-5 start to the year, as of late last week the Panthers had righted the ship and currently sit at 8-7 overall.
“We’re playing really well, and have improved a great deal,” Ayer Shirley girls’ basketball head coach Corey Phillips said. “Everybody is healthy, when at the beginning of the year everybody was not. I’ve never coached six games before Christmas, which was kind of brutal, and every time we played was good. We competed hard but just couldn’t get wins early.”
With the injury bug subsiding, Ayer Shirley was able to flip the script on some opponents, including avenging a 20-point loss to West Boylston with a comfortable double-digit victory. Staying mentally strong during the hard times helped the Panthers in this transformation on the scoreboard.
“I think they never lost their belief,” Phillips said. “My assistant and I thought we could potentially go 0-6 to start… and we thought we had to keep this thing afloat. The girls stayed and believed. We practiced over Christmas break, and didn’t have any games, and things started to click a little. They believe the sky’s the limit and that’s awesome on their part to keep pushing through in tough times. I’m really proud of them for that.”
Ayer Shirley is positioning itself well for the post-season despite floating around the .500 mark. The Panthers need to be in the top 32 to get a bid in Division 4, and as of the time of publication were sitting at 26. The Maroon and White’s strength of schedule is strong, so the early loss didn’t hurt Ayer Shirley. The team features the 6th hardest strength of schedule in Division 4.
Junior Emily Churchill is a first year captain who helped lead the turnaround, scoring 8.1 points per game at the point guard position. Tess Arakelian is a senior captain at 8.4 points per game, and has scored as many as 15 in some games. Arakelian plays multiple roles on the team, and is great at getting out in transition.
“(Churchill and Arakelian) both helped our second half,” Phillips said. “They were both named captain not right away, it might have been during or after the stretch of 1-5 in the beginning. They’ve helped keep everyone moving in the right direction.”
Ava Murphy suffered an injury and missed the first six games of the season, and her return marked a huge boost to the Panthers. Murphy leads the team in scoring, averaging 15 points per game, and logistically with her return all other players can return to their natural position and role.
“(Murphy) handles the ball for us, she’s a scorer,” Phillips said. “She turns the other team over. She sees things that other players don’t see on the court. She’s our leading scorer but she also two years ago had a quadruple double. I’ve never heard of anybody doing that. She kind of can do everything and we don’t usually see players like her.”
Ana Montoya is a critical player on the team, securing the forward position on a team that is mostly guards. Montoya ascended from a backup role to a starter throughout the course of the season, and currently plays 22 minutes per game. She’s taken the most charges on the team and is defending the opposing teams’ bigs.
Lauren Reardon is tasked nightly with guarding the opposing team's best player. Reardon has the ability to knock down the triple and is a consistent hard worker. Maleah Figueroa has the ability to score double digits and is a creative offensive player. Grace Cormier is a tough small forward and quality rebounder. Taylor New features a lot of the same traits as Cormier with toughness, rebounding, and solid defense. Kelsey Peterson is a sophomore guard who made a big jump in ability from her first year to second, which is difficult to do without a JV program.
“We can rotate nine players pretty comfortably,” Phillips said. “Those nine make it hard because we run, run, and run press and it’s hard to do with five or six players without driving yourself into the ground. When we’re healthy I can run 8 or 9 girls, and we’ve had a lot of games where the opposing team fades in the fourth quarter. You just see that they can’t keep that pace up anymore.”