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Keep it moving; Ayer Shirley football (6-2) persists

WINCHENDON - So much for the playoffs. Riding the broomsticks of a 6-2 campaign, the Ayer Shirley football team can only watch as the MIAA power rankings system performs a monster mash on its playoff aspirations. “We’re not in [the dance],” Coach Bill Wright said with a heavy sigh. “What happened is that they moved us up from Division 8 to Division 7. We didn't qualify.” The power rankings are calculated using a common ranking algorithm that determines a team’s margin of victory and strength of schedule. The Panthers, who play in a league predominantly composed of Division 8 teams, were punished by virtue of the old rules clashing against the new format. “Our kids struggled for two years to win a single game,” Coach Wright said. “Now we go 6-2 and we don’t get in [the playoffs]?” The first-year coach was particularly upset as Ayer Shirley’s losses came against a pair of powerhouses: Narragansett Regional (9-0) and Worcester Tech (7-1). The format places so much of an emphasis on playing up in a division that Tyngsborough High School with a record of 2-7 came closer to qualifying for the postseason. “As mad as I am about this, I am more infuriated for these kids,” Coach Wright said. “I don’t want them to be disappointed with a 6-2 record. Everything should be positive.” Wright said he was informed midweek about the midseason shuffle of the deck and felt it was best to be honest with his players prior to Friday night’s game versus Murdock (3-4). “I told them the truth,” he said. “I said this is our 'playoff game' - the next three games will be ‘our playoffs’. Let’s go compete at the best level we can.” The Panthers aired out their frustrations as quarterback Brian Holmes connected with tight end Ryan Marchand for three scores in a 34-20 win over the Blue Devils. Tailback Cam Marshall ran for a touchdown and added a pair of two-point conversions. Fullback Robbie Weeks capped the scoring with a four-yard plunge in the fourth. “We played good off the hop,” said Wright, noting his players had all the motivation they needed. The Ayer Shirley offense got on the board in the second as Holmes found Marchand for back-to-back scoring strikes. Marchand, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior, was starting just his third game of the season at tight end. He was previously forced into duty at fullback while Weeks recovered from a broken hand. “He’s not a natural fullback,” the coach said, “but he gave us everything he had for five games.” Returning to a more familiar position, Marchand used his “great instincts” and “good chemistry” with his quarterback to find an abundance of real estate in the back end of the Murdock defense. Holmes and Marchand matched again in the third quarter giving the visitors a 22-6 advantage. A Marshall touchdown stretched the lead to 28-6, but the Blue Devils didn’t go quietly into the night. Murdock pulled to within a score in the fourth as four-year starter Calvin Tenney pounded his way through the Panther defense. “He’s a really powerful downhill runner,” Wright said, noting that senior linebacker Lonnie Kearman did a good job meeting him in the gaps. Back in his element at fullback, Weeks sealed the contest with a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown run on fourth and goal. Good health had provided Ayer Shirley with a plethora of weapons - a detail not lost on the team's coach. “Having those guys in the lineup diversified us so much,” said Wright, adding that Panther strongman Julian Caile will also return next week after missing eight games with a broken collarbone. Ayer Shirley was expected to find out its next three opponents - all part of the Division 7 non-playoff bracket - on Monday, Nov. 1. “The playoffs would've been a bonus but that is out of our control,” Coach Wright said. Having joined the staff in late August, Wright has been impressed by what he has seen in just two months' time. “Playoffs or not, these 30 kids stuck it out after two [winless] years; now they’re going to have a plus-.500 season no matter what,” he said. “If you had told me back in August when I started, I’d have been ecstatic. The kids are enthusiastic. We’ve really just had a lot of positive things happen for this program. I’m really happy where it is and the direction we’re heading in.”