AYER – The Ayer Shirley Regional boys’ basketball team is off to the type of start it was hoping for. But the season isn’t defined by how it begins, and the Panthers are invested in long-term improvement. If the strides made early this year continue, it could be another quality year for the Maroon and White.
The Panthers are a mix, young in the sense of having one senior, but veteran in regards to having a strong contingent of juniors on the team, including three returning starters. Ayer Shirley has started the season strong, boasting a 3-1 record, and gaining some valuable experience for the newly acclimated players to the varsity level.
In addition to new players earning their sealegs, many of the veteran players are shifting to a more prominent role on the team, which has been a successful adjustment to this point in the season.
“The two seniors that started last year were four year starters,” Ayer Shirley boys’ basketball head coach Rick Kilpatrick said. “So they were the ones who had the ball in their hands the most and had to take the lead at times. Even for these returning guys, it’s an adjustment because they have a bigger role in the overall game plan.”
Ayer Shirley upped the schedule this year, with games against Quaboag Regional, Kipp Academy, Littleton and Lunenburg. The league will be competitive with Tahanto and Gardner leading the way, with Bromfield right there too.
“We have some tough games and really good teams we’ll have to play,” Kilpatrick said. “And in some cases play them twice.”
Six players rotate through the starting lineup for the Maroon and White. Bobby Manchester returns as a starter and will be featured at the point guard position and off-guard position. Manchester assumed a starting role at the tail end of last season, and showed some potential.
The strength of the team is in the paint with two solid forwards down low. Zach Iannacone and Tommy Bergin are the two juniors in the trenches, and have been leading the team in scoring. The Panther offense runs through them, as the half court offense revolves around getting the ball in the post.
“(Iannacone and Bergin) have shown a real strength to score inside,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re definitely going to focus on getting them the ball in good spots. They are both probably 6 feet 1 inch but play bigger than that. They’re both strong kids, they’re both athletic, they’re quick off the ground. They both do a really good job of knowing how to post up, and seal their guy. They know how to play the position and they’re able to finish.”
Jacob Bearce is a long wing who is good around the basket, and has a strong ability to block shots. Bearce’s go-to is his 3-point shooting, where he can create space and stretch other teams, and serves as a nice compliment to Iannacone and Bergin down low.
Austin Olum returns after posting quality minutes last year. Olum is an athletic player and strong defender, and will be utilized as a point guard and off-guard. Trevor Vlahos moved up from the junior varsity level and ascended into the starting point guard for two games thus far this season. Vlahos is showing improvement by the game, in some closely contested matchups through this point of the season.
Teddy Solitro is a contributing forward that will help defensively and with rebounding. Solitro is gaining experience by the day, and is a strong presence down low. Kenny Lewis has a knack for shooting, and has the ability to stretch the defense off the bench.
“I’ve been pleased with the start,” Kilpatrick said. “Obviously it’s nice to win a couple of games early. But there’s a learning curve, and I think ultimately our goal, and we always talk about this as a team, is to play your best basketball in February. I’m hopeful and think that this team has some upside. I don’t feel like we’ve come close to reaching our potential yet, but that’s certainly to be expected. We’re trying to really look at this as the long haul and where we can be in February, because I think that we have a chance of doing some good things if we keep that mindset.”