With a heaviness in their hearts, and the eyes of the community watching, the Ayer Shirley football team continues to show its resourcefulness.
In front of a homecoming crowd, the Panthers punished perennial powerhouse Narragansett Regional Friday evening, improving to a record of 5-1 with a 43-0 blanking of the visitors. The victory came eight days after classmate Krystal Mello succumbed to injuries in a fatal single-car crash on Route 190 North in Leominster.
Junior wideout Jackson Reed, who was also in the vehicle, remains in recovery in the ICU at UMass Hospital.
“For all of us, our focus is not where it could be, and I totally understand that,” Coach Bill Wright said. “We didn’t have a good week of practice, but to the kids' credit, they went out and absolutely dominated.”
In spite of the tragic circumstances, the coach believed Friday’s night shutout was the most complete game Ayer Shirley had played to date this season. The gridiron, he says, has been a place of refuge for the players.
“Football is their outlet,” he said. “I’ve felt that way even before the tragedy and incidents that have occurred this year. And it comes back to trust. As a coaching staff, we have immense trust in the kids, and I believe they have the same level of trust in us. When you have that, you can do special things.”
Senior signal caller Brian Holmes led the team with four touchdowns (two rushing, two throwing). Junior fullback James Gauntlett led the team in rushing for the second consecutive week, totaling 120 yards on 14 carries as the offensive line of Michael Arata, Julian Cail, Gabe DaCosta, John Iannacone and Jack Jeannotte won the battle of the trenches.
“We ran the ball really well, got some timely passing, and pretty much dominated defensively,” Coach Wright said.
The Panthers scoring was bookended by split-end Wyatt Gallant, who hauled in a pair of touchdown passes from Holmes, scoring from eight yards out in the first, and 28 yards in the fourth.
“He’s been awesome all year long,” Wright said of Gallant. “He’s very capable of catching the ball when he gets open. Wyatt gives us another weapon for defensive coaches to have to gameplan against.”
Holmes scored on the ground twice during the second quarter, adding a two-point conversion to a three-yard plunge. Placekicker Jack Thomas added a pair of extra points on the day - the first of which allowed Ayer Shirley to take a 21-0 edge into halftime. Senior tailback Cam Marshall accounted for the team’s other touchdown, notching an 11-yard scoring run in the third to put the game out of reach.
The defensive shutout was the first for Ayer Shirley since Oct. 20, 2017 - a 48-0 win over Gardner. By blanking the Warriors, a senior-laden group of Panthers exacted revenge on the team that welcomed them to varsity football with a 43-0 trouncing in 2019. The rivals met again last season with a league title on the line. Narragansett won 49-30.
“They were ecstatic about it,” Coach Wright said of the seniors. “It’s not the first thing on their minds, but it played some part in their motivation. In the back of their minds, these kids remember where they were three years ago.”
With a record of 3-0 in the Mid-Wach E League Division, Ayer Shirley has the inside track to win the league title. The Panthers can clinch their first Mid-Wach championship since 2006 with a win over Murdock (4-2, 1-0 Mid-Wach E). The teams meet in Ayer Friday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m..
Before the fate of the league can be determined, Murdock will play host this week to Gardner (1-5), the first of three Mid-Wach E League matchups left on the Wildcats’ schedule. Meanwhile, Ayer Shirley will attempt to lock into its next task - a non-league contest at Southbridge High School Friday, Oct. 21.
“They’ve got a good offense that’s going to put up points,” Wright said of the Pioneers, who are 4-2 on the season, averaging 24 points per contest.
Stuck between tragedy and triumph, the Panther brass says the team is taking each day as it comes and trying to respond accordingly.
“This is a senior-laden football team, and they’re capable of turning the switch on and off,” the coach said. “Again, we didn’t have a great week of practice, but we took two days this week to put a defense in and these guys went out and executed it to perfection. My trust in them is elevated like you wouldn’t believe.”