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It’s not how you start, but where you finish

Before the 2023 campaign began, a 15-win Ayer Shirley baseball team that advanced to Div. 5 Sweet 16 lost its top three pitchers, including staff ace Ryan Marchand to a torn ACL during football season. Without that pitching prowess, the Panthers’ prowl appeared to be reduced to a purr.

“We lost two of the first three games, but credit the kids, they never stopped believing in themselves,” Coach Bill Wright said.

Ayer Shirley has reeled off wins in 16 of 19 contests, including a trio of victories in the Div. 5 tournament. With their most recent success, the Panthers earned a trip to the Final Four to face No. 2 Bourne (16-7) under the lights at Brockton Rox Stadium this Tuesday at 7 p.m..

“We’ve done it with pitching, defense and timely hitting,” said Wright, noting the team had not advanced this far since appearing in the Central Mass. Finals in 2006.

Ayer Shirley has relied on newly-minted ace, junior Tyler Crawford. Crawford is 7-2 this spring, earning the decision in a 14-3 quarterfinals win over Frontier Regional (16-7). Crawford bounced back after a rocky first inning to throw a complete game, striking out five and walking none.

“I think it was a little bit of nerves,” Wright said. “We got him adjusted and coming downhill after that first inning and he was fine.”

The Redhawks opened the contest with three hits and an error, plating two and threatening for more with two on and two out. A lined shot into the left center appeared to be trouble but senior center fielder Cam Marshall lunged and made a spectacular diving catch to end the inning.

“If Cam doesn’t catch that ball, we’re down 4-0,” Coach Wright said. “He got up, came in and he was uncharacteristically vocal. That set the tone for us for the rest of the day. You could tell how much he wanted it”

Marshall and fellow senior Brian Holmes both reach base in the bottom half and scored to tie the contest at 2-2 after one inning of play.

The Panthers opened up the game in the third, plating four runners and taking a commanding 6-2 lead. The Ayer Shirley attack continued clubbing away, scoring two runs in each of the fourth and fifth frames, and adding four more in the sixth.

“We ran the gamut of a good baseball team,” said Wright, crediting solid pitching, good baserunning, timely hitting and great defense for the win. James Churchill capped off the scoring with a three-run jack in the sixth.

The Panthers have allowed just four runs in three state tournament games. Crawford earned the win in an opening round win over Mystic Valley Regional, 10-1, while senior Kevin Surette improved to 7-0 on the year with a complete-game 3-0 shutout of Sutton in the Round of 16.

Defensively, senior captain Sam Oestreicher has set the tone behind the plate for Ayer Shirley.

Oestreicher has successfully thrown out 10 baserunners over the past eight games.

“Sam has improved dramatically in terms of blocking balls, calling games and throwing runners out,” Wright said, noting that Oestreicher had caught every inning except for one over the past three seasons.

Wright was also very complimentary of fellow classmate Ryan Marchand. Despite not being able to play due to injury, Marchand has attended every practice and served “the role of a third coach” to the team. The senior has been rehabilitating a torn ACL suffered last fall during the Panthers’ run to a football title and postseason berth.

“He’s been an unbelievable leader,” said Wright, noting he taught Crawford how to throw a dominant knuckle curve. “I couldn’t be happier as a coach, not just of the athlete he is, but of the person Ryan is. His dedication to this team is one of the reasons we are where we are.”

Much like that football team, he said, Ayer Shirley still runs through Holmes and Marshall.

The dynamic duo wrecked Frontier Regional’s defensive plans, reaching base a total of eight times, scoring six of those and adding a pair of RBIs.

“As they go, we go,” Wright said of an offense averaging roughly 8.5 runs per contest.

The Panthers will need that type of offensive output if they are to get past a perennially potent Bourne baseball team that reached the Elite Eight last season. The Canalmen have outscored their opponents 28-6 during this postseason.

“They’re kind of like us in the sense that they have a couple of good pitchers, speed at the top of their lineup and they play good defense,” the veteran skipper said.

Ayer Shirley High has arranged for a complimentary student bus, as well as a parent and family bus to make the trip to Brockton, with the hopes of advancing to play for a state title. If the Panthers move on, they will play the winner of Tuesday’s semifinals tilt in Holyoke featuring Hopkins Academy (17-4) and Pioneer Valley Regional (21-0).

“We’re all business at this point,” Coach Wright said. “The motto from the beginning of this tournament has been to win five. We’ve got three down and two to go.”


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