AYER -- Few people would confuse the local area as a hotbed for volleyball, but one team has an impressive run over the last four years. The Ayer-Shirley volleyball team has compiled a 63-16 record and has been a consistent force in the area. With Coach Donna Ferreira returning for a second go-around, the Lady Panthers will look to continue their success on the court.

"It is nice to be back and to have such a great group of girls to coach," said Ferreira. "We really have a team that has a unique bond and is willing to do anything for each other. That, mixed with good talent, has me very pleased heading into the season."

Welcoming Ferreira back is an experienced group of senior captains. Clara Watson, Anna Peck and Shanna DeBalsi have been a crucial part of Ayer-Shirley's past success and will be counted on to lead the way this season. "Clara is a middle hitter who has really welcomed a leadership role," said Ferreira. "She has a powerful serve and strikes the ball with force at the net.

"Anna is improving her vocal leadership and already leads by example. She is athletic and has all the skills necessary to be a great offensive player at middle hitter. Her serve is strong and her all-around game has few weaknesses. Shanna is an outside hitter who is our most powerful player both at the net and serving. She has the versatility to play anywhere and is a factor on both offense and defense."

Joining the captains in the starting lineup are senior outside hitter Celiena DeBalsi, senior setter Erika Esielionis and junior setter Emma Shields. "Celiena has a very nice all-around game both at the net and on the back row," said Ferreira. The strength of her game is her service, which is very consistent and extremely accurate.

"Erika is one of the -- if not the most -- consistent players on the floor for us. She rarely gets rattled and is strong not only setting but in the service game as well. Emma is very talented and gained valuable experience playing Junior Olympics during the off-season. She is very fast, covers a lot of ground and will rarely leave the court this year."

Sophomores Stephanie Chilicky (middle hitter) and Katherine Esielionis (setter) will get ample opportunities to contribute for the Lady Panthers. "Stephanie is new to sport but is really picking things up quickly," said Ferreira. "She is very quick and has really improved her all-around game every time she stepped on the court. Katherine is consistent with her sets. She is fast and can cover a lot of ground, which helps her defensively as well."

Rounding out the squad is a foursome of talented freshmen. Outside hitters Julie Maillet, Maddie Mitrano and Danielle Colburn along with middle hitter Rebecca Ernst are all in the mix for valuable playing time. "Julie also played Junior Olympics this pre-season and has progressed nicely," said Ferreira. "She could see some time at setter as well and has displayed a great team attitude.

"Maddie has had a solid pre-season and is getting better every day. Danielle is a good passer who is quickly picking up the varsity game. She is a dependable player who gets the job done. Danielle has been a pleasant surprise for us. She is a solid player who has a chance to surprise."

With a talented roster that will get better with experience, Ferreira is optimistic about what this season holds. "I like where we are now, but we have to get better as our schedule provides a lot of tough tests," said Ferreira. "We have the talent and drive to be competitive, and I think we have a shot of continuing our tradition of playing in the post-season."