AYER – For many, the holiday season includes some cherished gifts, and for the Ayer Shirley Regional boys’ indoor track and field team, its gift this season was not only highly valued but also unexpected.
Heading into the season, the Panthers were thinking they had the elite talent, but the team’s depth was a little raw. However, as the season is beginning to unfold, it’s quite apparent that the Maroon and White are going to be a force to contend with in 2023-24.
“I initially thought that we were top-heavy,” Ayer Shirley Regional boys’ indoor track and field head coach Chris Donovan said. “Because we have Arthur Ribeiro who signed with a Division 1 (college) track program and Cole New is a year behind him and he’s getting Division 1 looks already. So they’re going to carry a lot of the weight, but we’ve already had a few surprises early where I went from thinking we were potentially a contender for the league, but we just didn’t quite have the depth, to now thinking how far we can go in districts and states. It got pretty exciting pretty quickly actually.”
The surge in unexpected talent has come from two sources, both younger athletes getting better but also a few new, particularly late-career arrivals making their first go-at the sport, and proving to be superstars.
“We’ve had a few kids show a good amount of progress from outdoor last year and indoor last year,” Donovan said. “And then we had a couple of new kids come out. I’m sure other schools are like this, but we have this long standing tradition of getting a senior out who immediately says ‘I wish I’d done this all along.’ James Churchill is one of our seniors, who’s a soccer and baseball player and he came over from the basketball team and he’s already lighting it up. He’s a top level sprinter and I’m kind of stunned actually, I thought he’d help us in a relay, but nothing to the length of what he’s already doing.”
The sprints are a source of a lot of quality depth. Senior captain Danae Arnold has already qualified for state’s in the 55-meter dash, and already owns the school record in the event with a 6.89 second time, matching it in the first meet of the year. Newcomer Churchill ran a sub 37 second time in the 300 to start his career, and will dabble around in a few sprinting events as the season goes on.
Jacob Teo, a junior soccer player, enters in his first indoor season after doing outdoor track for the first time last spring. Teo posted a mid-37 300m at the Speed Classic.
Ribeiro, who will be competing for Division 1 Holy Cross next winter and spring, ran a low 36 in the Speed Classic in the 300m, and will be used throughout the sprints and middle distances to accumulate big points as the season progresses. Having three athletes in the 36 and 37 range will likely place all three runners at the state championship. The sprint depth could also make for a pretty mean mile relay.
Ayer Shirley is a little young in the mid-distance but New is expected to move up to the 600m posting a 1:24 at the Speed Classic, breaking a 7-year-old school record. Noah Reed and Adam Arakelian are running strong times as sophomores, in the 1:30s.
Freshman Noah Carvelli is making good strides in the 1,000 and flirting with a state-qualifying time. But Carvelli will likely shift to the relays come championship time.
Freshman Jack Holden is the top distance runner on the team with an 11:40 in his first 2 mile go. Nathan Baptista and Cole Heinle-Kleczka are two seniors providing some quality distance depth.
“The distance team doesn’t get a lot of credit because we have so much depth in the sprints and mids,” Donovan said. “But nobody works harder than those kids. There are days that everyone is inside but the distance kids still go out because there’s just not a whole lot they can do to be productive in a building. They know if it snows they’re still going out, so I give them a lot of credit and I look forward to later in the year.”
Churchill, Lukas Biddle, and Jullian Kikuba are a little raw in high jump experience, but the trio, with limited practice time in the event without an indoor facility, is working to score some points come league’s.
First time senior Kondwani Obison is making an impact in the shot put throwing in the mid-30s with basically no experience. The goal will be to inch up closer to 40 come championship time, as he builds experience by the minute. Jake Pitsios and Mathias Paillard will provide depth in the shot.
Ribeiro will be featured in the long jump for the bigger meets, with over 20 foot capability. Kayden Srey-Phan will provide some relay depth. Biddle and Paillard will be the leaders in the hurdles.
“I like the numbers and the work ethic from the kids,” Donovan said. “Winter is the toughest season to coach for so many factors, the weather, the late nights, the long days in Boston, and you can tell right away with the kids you have whether or not you’re going to have a fun time. It’s nice to have the talent like we do, but the biggest thing so far is I just have reliable kids. I think we’re going to be good this year, but even with some of the top kids leaving next year I think we’re going to be able to keep the success going for a while.”