Panthers dedicate the first title in 14 years to a fallen classmate.
After losing 13 of their first 14 varsity contests, a senior-laden class of resilient Panthers are proudly prowling atop the Mid-Wach E League for the first time since 2006.
The Ayer Shirley football program, which was nearly canceled in the summer of 2021 due to low turnout and no head coach, clinched the league title Friday night after grinding out an 19-12 win over Murdock.
“It’s awesome,” said Head Coach Bill Wright, who took over the position two weeks prior to the 2021 season opener. “It’s vindication for these guys. It shows that their perseverance paid off. This is a core group of kids who took their beatings as freshmen and sophomores, and this is their sweet reward.”
The Panther's victory didn’t come easy though.
On a night when senior Jackson Reed returned to the field for the first time since suffering life-threatening injuries in a car accident that also took the life of classmate Krystal Mello, emotions were running high. Ayer Shirley had also received an unexpected bye when its Week Seven opponent Southbridge High canceled a scheduled meeting after a student-athlete unexpectedly passed away.
Rust, coupled with nerves, made for a less-than-stellar outing from a Panther offense that entered the affair averaging 33 points per game.
The Blue Devils opened the game with an onside kick, but Ayer Shirley pounced on the ball. The Panthers needed just three plays to get inside the visitor's 10-yard line. But the drive stalled there, with Murdock forcing a fumble from Cam Marshall on fourth and goal from the 4 - the first of two red zone turnovers for Ayer Shirley on the night.
“Offensively, we could move the ball, but we shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times,” Coach Wright said.
The Blue Devils put together a lengthy drive, but junior James Gauntlett flipped the momentum, intercepting a pass from Murdock quarterback Sebastien Guillaume on third-and-16 at the Panther's 31.
On the following play, senior signal caller Brian Holmes raced untouched 69 yards down the left sidelines to give Ayer Shirley a 6-0 lead.
The Blue Devils responded by giving the ball to their bell cow, 220-pound bruiser Calvin Tenney. The senior tailback gutted the Panther defense for runs of 31, 12 and 10 yards amidst a 64-yard scoring drive for the visitors. Junior Jarius Williams finished the job, rushing off the right edge for a one-yard touchdown to tie the game, 6-6, with 1:39 left in the first.
“They were good,” Coach Wright said. “We had trouble adjusting at the line of scrimmage.”
After trading punts, Ayer Shirley steered a seven-play, 53-yard drive into the red zone, before fumbling away another opportunity just before halftime.
The Panthers’ first possession of the second half began at their own 19. Ayer Shirley began feeding Gauntlett the ball, calling the junior’s number on three consecutive running plays. On third-and-1, Gauntlett got into the second level of the Murdock defense, running for 22 yards, before being tackled on a facemask penalty.
Senior split end Robbie Weeks pushed the Panthers into the red zone with a 21-yard run on a jet sweep. On first-and-goal from the eight-yard-line, Holmes took three steps backward and fired a rocket into the hands of Cam Marshall for a touchdown. Junior Jack Thomas successfully converted the kick to give Ayer Shirley a 13-6 advantage with 3:46 left in the third.
The Blue Devils again responded with a lengthy drive, traveling 78 yards in seven minutes and 41 seconds. On third goal from the three-yard line, Tenney charged into the right side of the Panther front. The ball popped loose into the end zone, and Williams pounced on the recovery for a Murdock touchdown.
The visitors went right back to the same play on the two-point attempt, but seniors Jack Jeannotte and John Iacconne made the stop, keeping the hosts in the lead, 13-12, with 7:58 remaining in the game.
“Jack was under the weather, puking at halftime,” the coach said. “But he just went out there and gamed it.”
The Blue Devils attempted their third onside kick of the game, but junior lineman Kondwani Obison retrieved a bouncing pigskin at the 47. A 27-yard run by Marshall put Ayer Shirley into scoring range. The senior tailback also converted a fourth-and-1 run from the 14 to keep the drive alive. One play later, Holmes guided another pass into his arms on a shallow post route to take a 19-12 lead with 3:35 left.
“They single-covered him and so we went to him,” Coach Wright said.
Obison, playing as an inside rusher for the first time this season, closed out Murdock in the final minute. With a steady crowd braving a 40-degree October night, chanting, “DEFENSE!”, Obison pushed his way to Guilleume on third-and-10, driving the Murdock quarterback into the ground for a 10-yard loss.
“[Obison] did a great job,” Coach Wright said. “We struggled early on. It was a war. But the kids rose to the occasion in the second half. They were phenomenal on that last drive.”
Offensively, Holmes (112 yards rushing) and Marshall (110 yards) each eclipsed the century mark on the ground.
“It was a total team effort,” Coach Wright said. “It was a struggle tonight. That’s just where we are. Next week, we’re going to be facing a better team and we’ll have to be ready to go.”
The Panthers improved to 6-1 on the season, securing the No. 10 seed in the MIAA Div. 7 playoffs. They will play No. 7 Clinton (5-3). Both teams beat No. 11 Lunenburg (5-3). The game will take place at Clinton High School Nov. 4 at 7 p.m..
Ayer Shirley has spent more time off the gridiron than most high school teams following the tragedy. The emotional weight of the season, Coach Wright explained, has been a lot to bear for his team.
“We haven’t had great practices, but they’ve kept going; it’s inspirational,” he said. “We might not have played our best, but we gave our all for our injured teammates. We are playing for Jackson [Reed] and we’re playing for Krystal [Mello’s] memory. And we’ll continue to do so.”