In a battle of what is likely to be a pair of winless high school football teams, Ayer Shirley and Murdock are slated to meet for a Week Eight matchup Friday, Oct. 27 in Winchendon. The Panthers entered an unscheduled bye week with a record of 0-6, short of an opponent to play in Week Seven. The Blue Devils are slated to face an unbeaten Gardner High (6-0) squad averaging 44.5 points of offense per contest.
“Football emulates life,” Ayer Shirley Skipper Bill Wright said. “On the field, or off the field, you’re going to have your ups and downs. And from time to time, you might find yourself in a rut. How you respond to that adversity will teach you about character - as a group and as individuals.”
While Murdock has lost each of its contests by 20 points or more, the Panthers have lost three games by one score or less, and were leading at the half in Week Two against Worcester North before a trio of turnovers turned the contest in the hosts favor.
“Right now, the guys feel like we’re snakebitten,” Coach Wright said. “We feel we’re better than an 0-6 football team.”
Ayer Shirley has lost the first two games of a three-game road trip, falling to Narragansett Regional, 42-14, this past Friday.
The previous week, the Panthers dropped a close one to Quabbin Regional in overtime, 20-14. Ayer Shirley knotted the game at 6-6 in the third when quarterback Bobby Manchester found Wyatt Gallant in the air for a 10-yard touchdown pass. Quabbin regained the lead in the fourth when quarterback Jaxon Warburton crossed the goal line on a one-yard run. Luke Salvadore added a two-point conversion run to give the hosts an eight-point edge, but the Panthers weren’t done yet. Ayer Shirley drove the length of the field and senior stalwart James Gauntlett closed the drive with a three-yard TD run, and a two-point conversion to force overtime.
In extra time, Warburton found Jake Leazott for an 11-yard game-winning touchdown pass.
The Panthers experimented with Gauntlett at quarterback versus Narragansett.
“It’s nothing against Bobby [Manchester]; he’s been great for us,” Coach Wright said. “We just wanted to change it up and we felt like putting the ball in James’ hands was our best option.”
Ayer Shirley will use Week Seven as a bye week for the second consecutive season after unsuccessfully finding an opponent. Last season, the Panthers used the break to rest their bodies and tighten up perceived weaknesses. The restoration resulted in a 19-12 win over Murdock, which gave Ayer Shirley sole possession of the Mid Wach E League title. Both teams qualified for the postseason last year, with the Panthers holding a 7-3 mark. Murdock finished 8-3.
“Any nicks and pains you have are going to dissipate with the week off,” Coach Wright said. “With that said, we’ve got to be sure to keep our mental focus. So we’ll go easy Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and then next week ramp it back up. Physicality works to our advantage when we use it [in practice].”
PANTHERS ON THE PROWL: First year football player Danae Arnold has been called “tough as nails” by his coaching staff. The 170-pound senior has stepped in at nose guard this fall, oftentimes finding himself 100 pounds the lesser in a blocking match of the trenches. “Especially versus those kids from [Worcester] North!” chuckled Coach Bill Wright. “Danae is a kid that gives you maximum effort on every play. He might get his butt kicked, but he’s not going to make it easy on you.”
Also drawing praise from Coach Wright was freshman Gage Mueller. Mueller is one of seven underclassmen starting for the Panthers. He has split time from being a defensive lineman and a linebacker. “Gage is learning on the fly,” Coach Wright said. “He’s coming downhill every play and he’s doing a really good job out there for us.”