This is how legends are made.
Firmly fixed on the inside track of the Div. 7 playoff race, the Ayer-Shirley football team (5-1) has overcome a tremendous amount of adversity this season. Now, another challenge awaits the opportunity to win its first Mid-Wach League title in 16 years.
“It’s a legacy game to them,” said Coach Bill Wright, who was an assistant for Ayer during the 2006 banner year. “This group of seniors endured some hellacious beatings as freshmen and sophomores. And now everything has come full circle.”
The Panthers are still reeling after fellow student-athlete Krystal Mello succumbed to injuries following a fatal car accident Oct. 6. Ayer Shirley wide receiver Jackson Reed was also in the vehicle. He suffered life-threatening injuries and spent the following two weeks in the ICU at UMass Hospital.
“He’s out of the hospital and he’s at home,” Coach Wright said. “He’s going through a tough time but he’s working to get better every day. We just told him if there’s anything we can do, let us know.”
Members of the team attended a funeral wake for the 16-year-old Mello this past Thursday. With the emotions of the event still on their minds the following morning, the Panthers were informed their Friday night football contest had been canceled after an unexpected death of a Southbridge student-athlete.
“We’re trying to keep everybody up; we’re trying to keep everybody positive,” the coach said.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “these guys have learned a lot of lessons and seen a lot of things about life in the last three weeks. It really puts football in perspective. As much as these guys think it’s the number one priority, it’s really not.”
As the team continues to deal with the emotional enormity of the moment, Coach Wright gave the players the weekend off after checking in with the group Friday morning.
“Football was secondary at that particular point,” he said. “Their minds weren’t in the right place.”
The contest has not been declared a forfeit and still could be rescheduled at a later date.
For now, Ayer Shirley will attempt to turn its focus to Friday night’s 7 p.m. showdown with league foe Murdock (5-2). A win over the Blue Devils would guarantee the Panthers the outright Mid-Wach E League title. A loss and they would have to hope for Narragansett Regional to beat Murdock on Thanksgiving Day, thus forcing a three-way tie for the title.
“We’ve got a home game, it’s going to be Senior Night and Jackson might be there,” Coach Wright rattled off a variety of factors. “There’s a lot of emotions here.”
The coach trusts Ayer Shirley's seasoned soldiers, often likening them to the 2006 title team, ready for battle whenever and wherever they are called upon to do so.
“The 2006 team was a bunch of very low-key kids who just went out and performed,” he said. “That group played a lot of football and could go out and execute a game plan to perfection. This team reminds me so much of that team.”
However, the 2006 group didn’t have a bye week leading up to its league-clinching title game. The time off has provided the Panthers' thin roster (just 30 players) some much-needed time to mend some nagging injuries. But after seeing Murdock dismantle Gardner, 56-13, this past week, the team will ramp up its practice intensity to make sure it is ready to meet the moment.
“We’ll watch some more film on Monday,” the coach said, “but on Tuesday and Wednesday we will have to bang just to get the physicality back into the game.” Ayer Shirley currently sits in 13th place in the Div. 7 power rankings according to the MIAA website. After a variety of upsets within the division this past Friday, the Panthers could jump up as high as ninth place when the rankings are updated this week. If Ayer Shirley continues to win out, it may find itself hosting a first-round playoff game on its new home field. The Panthers are on a five-game win streak and have outscored their opponents this season by a score of 198 to 60. “I think we’re a pretty proficient team,” said the coach. “We’re not going to change too much - maybe just tweak a few things.” The way Ayer Shirley has triumphed in the face of extreme adversity continues to inspire their staff, giving them the utmost faith in the players. “It all goes back to the same thing: I have supreme trust in these guys,” Wright said. “And I believe they can turn the switch on and off whenever they want to.” “This is life,” he added. “They’re seeing it, they’re living it, and their characters are their biggest, strongest traits.”