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Ayer-Shirley wins on behalf of a fallen classmate

Sports have a way of bringing people together during times of tragedy. Perhaps it is the childlike nature of a game that provides a reminder of life’s simplicity. Perhaps there, in that collective innocence, hearts are allowed to open and healing can be found. Whatever the reason, sports often serve as a catalyst to communities in mourning. Such was the case this past week when the Ayer Shirley community was rocked by the passing of 16-year-old student-athlete Krystal Mello. Mello succumbed to injuries suffered in a serious car accident Thursday evening on I-190 in Leominster. “She was a funny, kind, athletic, and intelligent young woman,” Ayer Shirley Regional High School Athletic Director Steve Kendall wrote on a GoFundMe page, which has been created on behalf of the Mello family for the funeral costs. Kendall canceled all school sporting events Friday, allowing distraught classmates to seek access to supportive resources. For some student-athletes, their coaching staffs were the source of support. “I told the kids, ‘I’m not just speaking to you as some old, cranky football coach,’ ” Head Coach Bill Wright said. "I've lived it." To the second-year skipper, the tragic loss of Mello, a 16-year-old athlete, resurfaced old wounds. When Wright was 18, he lost his 16-year-old brother, Stephen, in a tragic car accident. He addressed the team with a heavy heart during a team meeting Friday morning. “Things like this put football in perspective,” said Wright, whose brother was also a football player. “This is a life-altering event for people and these kids. So I’m talking to them as a brother, as a father. I’m talking to them as someone who cares deeply.” Wright and his staff provided an open forum for the players to speak. Some did, while others struggled to find the necessary words. However, all of them chose to make a statement on the gridiron field Saturday evening when the team hosted Quabbin Regional in a rescheduled Mid-Wach League contest. A moment of silence was held before kickoff in honor of Krystal. “It took us a couple of series to get into the game,” Wright said. “I think that’s just a natural thing. You’re dwelling on this tragedy, and then you’re asked to put it out of your mind. It's hard for kids to do that right away. But once they got there, they played as hard as they could. And that’s all we could ask for. To their credit, even the jayvee kids, who came in during the second half, played with the same emotion, the same vigor.” A united band of Panthers pulverized the visitors, 36-6. Senior Brian Holmes ran for three touchdowns and threw for a pair, connecting with tailback Cam Marshall on both scores. Junior James Gauntlett accounted for 113 yards on 16 carries, advancing Ayer Shirley’s record to 4-1 on the year. “It’s been a whirlwind of emotions,” Wright said by phone Sunday evening. “I think the kids did a really good job of handling everything that was thrown at them.” At the conclusion of the contest, the team met at midfield to honor Mello, as well as three other victims who were injured in the crash. “Football became secondary,” Wright said. The team will continue to devote its play to the honor of Krystal Mello, donning helmet decals with the initials K.M.. If the Panthers get past perennial powerhouse Narragansett Regional (1-4) this Friday, they will take one step closer to securing a postseason berth. A win would also give Ayer Shirley the inside track to a league title. Ayer Shirley has not won a Mid Wach championship since 2006. “We’re not just playing for Krystal; we’re playing for the entire community and all those affected,” he said. “[Saturday], we rallied as a family. That was the most humbling thing to me - watching that happen. And it came from these guys.”