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The Last Dance

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." The Shakespearean refrain seems apropos for a group of 14 Ayer Shirley seniors embarking on the final conquest of a storied run - a Thanksgiving Day tilt with Littleton. These Panthers have ridden a roller coaster that has often seemed more befitting for the hit drama Grey's Anatomy than a high school gridiron club. As freshmen, some of these seniors endured a nine-loss season, tasting victory just once as the school paired with Bromfield to field a team. The Ayer Shirley/Bromfield co-op lasted just one more season, drudging through a pandemic-shortened campaign brought on by Covid-19. Winless through four contests, the Panthers forfeited the 2020 finale of that spring season, citing safety concerns as injuries and illness left their depth chart dangerously thin. When the co-op disbanded a month later, the team wasn't just short on players - it also needed a new head coach. A 14-person committee settled on local coach Jermaine McKenzie in May. But no sooner than July had the vacancy returned as McKenzie stepped down, leaving Athletic Director Steve Kendall to wonder whether the program would be canceled outright. Ayer Shirley baseball coach and former football assistant Billy Wright admirably raised his hand and volunteered as tribute, stepping into the unknown. Expectations were low as Wright was given just three weeks to build cohesion, recruit players and install an offense in hopes of turning around a program that had lost 13 of its last 14 games. "We talk about it often," Coach Wright said. "These kids went through a lot." Remarkably, the Panthers won six of their first eight games in the fall of 2021. They looked like a shoe-in for the first-ever MIAA Div. 8 football playoffs. Only, the MIAA chose to make an in-season realignment, moving Ayer Shirley up to Div. 7. Under the new formula, the Panthers were punished for playing teams in their former division. The strength of schedule, or lack thereof, now played against Ayer Shirley, making its .750 winning percentage the second-best record in Massachusetts not to qualify for postseason play. Dejected, the Panthers dropped their final three contests, losing much of the momentum manufactured during an inspiring September and October run. After licking their wounds, they got to work in the offseason in the weight room. The fruits of that labor were evident early on as Ayer Shirley went toe-to-toe in a scrimmage with Central Mass. powerhouse West Boylston, who has since advanced to the Div. 7 state championship at Gillette Stadium. "It was a big first step towards a successful season," Wright said. The Panthers rebounded from a season-opening heartbreaker at Worcester Tech to earn six consecutive wins, including a one-score victory over Murdock on Oct. 28, clinching the first division title for the school in 18 years. The title was dedicated to a fallen classmate, Krystal Mello - a 16-year-old junior who tragically lost her life on Oct. 6 in a car accident. Senior wideout Jackson Reed was also in that vehicle, sustaining life-threatening injuries. After a lengthy stay in the ICU at UMass, Reed rejoined the team to provide emotional support for a stretch run that included the Panthers' first-ever playoff appearance under the new MIAA format. "This is a really good group of kids," said Coach Wright after falling to Clinton in the first round. "We've faced adversity off the field in terms of tragedy, and on the field as well." For as much as they've enjoyed playing winning football, Wright believes his players are leaving the field with life lessons, which is more important than whatever is on the scoreboard. "My message to them is always the same: don't think you're invincible," he said. "You see, football, it's just a game. And there are so many things more important in life than football, including your family and your friends." Thursday's holiday hosting of the Tigers is the last time this particular family will gather together for a competition. The Ayer Shirley coach wants his players to just enjoy the last dance, and stay in the moment until the last whistle is blown. "The biggest lesson these kids can teach is one of perseverance," he said. "As freshmen and sophomores, they won one game. They got beat up and took their lickings. They could've easily said, 'To hell with it' and packed it in. But that's just not in their DNA." Wright has been coaching high school football in Massachusetts for 30 years. The generational difference between the players and their coach have been overcome by mutual respect for each other and the sport, as well as a love of 80s rock-and-roll ballads that is reserved for road trips. "This group is very unique," Wright said. "They're like a giant click. When they're all together, they can be funny as hell." "But it can also be annoying sometimes," he added with a hearty laugh. "Sometimes, you just can't do anything but laugh." "They're a good group of high-character kids," he concluded. "I'm going to miss them."

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