AYER -- The Ayer Panthers U16 softball team won the North Central Mass. Babe Ruth Softball league title, but at the start of the season; it was an accomplishment that not even Nostradamus himself could have predicted. The Panthers opened their season against the upper-echelon of competition with the first three games against the Lunenburg Cyclones, Lunenburg Hurricanes and border-rival Shirley.
"We had a very slow start to the season," said head coach Michael Ernst. "All of a sudden, the girls got serious and meshed. We went 5-0 to end the regular season sweeping both Fitchburg and Townsend-Ashby."
Ayer lost each of its initial three games by a combined margin of 38-17. The Panthers, led by head coach Ernst and his staff, refused to let the slow start deter them. Ayer, instead went on a run of epic proportions, winning all but one of its final nine games. Ayer's last loss came on May 31 at the hands of the Lunenburg Cyclones, a team they would meet again, later down the road.
The start of the Babe Ruth season coincides with the middle of the interscholastic softball schedule, which provided an added challenge for Ernst and his staff to deal with.
"What was tough in the beginning of the season was the bouncing around," Ernst said. "We had five varsity players, four JV players and five middle school players. I had a combination of three-to-four pitchers all season who contributed."
The Panthers finished their season with an overall record of 6-4 and picked up the number-three seed in the league tournament.
"Because of the way they broke up the playoffs, we drew the low-seed Fitchburg," the coach said. "Seed one and two had a bye. We beat Fitchburg in the first round and had to face Shirley. Ayer and Shirley are really competitive, and everyone knows each other."
Ayer roared past Shirley with an 18-4 victory, due in large part to the Panthers ability to capitalize on the Hawks' miscues.
"They had all of their players and we had all of our players," the coach said. "We came to play. They made some mistakes they don't normally make, and we won pretty handedly."
Four days later, the Panthers found themselves pitted in the championship game against the one team they have yet to defeat during the season -- the Lunenburg Cyclones. Coming into the Sunday afternoon showdown at Marshall Park in Lunenburg, the Cyclones outscored Ayer 37-12 in the teams' two previous meetings.
"Lunenburg walked right into the playoffs," said Ernst. "At that point, the championship game we ended up winning 8-5. It was a hard fought game, and I told the girls right from the get-go: 'we are going to go out there, play hard and jump on them offensively and stop them defensively and we are going to not let up.' That's what we did."
Initially, the Ayer team was comprised of 18 girls, which is a large roster for any team to carry. The Panthers rode the arm of starting pitcher Kassie Breest, who also was one of the key pitchers in the rotation at Ayer-Shirley High School. Breest's battery mate, Tina Babcock, was a fundamental component to the Panthers' success.
"Our starting pitcher and all around best pitcher was Kassie Breest," the coach said. "Tina Babcock, who is also the varsity catcher, caught for me. She was unbelievable behind the plate. I can just go on and name everybody, but it turned into a very team oriented thing."
Breest was in the circle for Ayer's championship clinching win over Lunenburg on June 23. Third baseman Kailey Vidal made a miraculous play to record the final out of the championship.
"She makes an unbelievable play the last out of the game cutting off the ball," said Ernst on Vidal's game-ending put-out. "She came up with the scoop, didn't even stop and fired a laser-shot. My daughter, Sarah, at first base makes an unbelievable catch - looks at the home plate umpire and waits for the out signal."
For Ernst and his team, winning the 2013 North Central Mass. League Championship will forever hold a special place in their hearts.
"We placed first in a brand-new U16 Babe Ruth girls' softball league," said Ernst. "The only name that is going to be on the trophy is ours."