AYER/SHIRLEY -- Last year's Panthers boys' basketball team had glimmers of hope down the final stretch of the season, but they were not able to string together solid performances every night. The Panthers found themselves in the cellar of Mid-Wach D with an overall record of 7-11, and a league mark of 4-8. The Panthers went 4-0 down the stretch, highlighted by a regular season finale victory over eventual league champion Littleton.
The 2012-2013 Panthers feature an undersized, yet athletic group who look to be playing come District tournament time.
Ayer-Shirley is going to be a gritty team this season, hungry for respect in the Mid-Wach D Conference. Often, the Panthers' efforts are overshadowed by the efforts of Littleton and Bromfield, who are perennially at the top of the Mid-Wach D heap.
"It's a young team, but we're fast and confident," said Tyler Gaetz. "I'm thinking playoffs, as long as we move our feet and get rebounds, we should be fine. "
Ayer-Shirley returns three seniors to this years' team in multi-sport athletes Ryan Goodman, Ryan Coulter and Gaetz. Looking at the Panthers' roster, you might not think they have much experience at first glance. Also returning are juniors Anthony Burwell, Zak Walker, and Ryan Richard, who all played on the Panthers' football team this past fall.
Walker is an inside-outside threat who isn't afraid to crash the glass. Expect to see him at one of the guard spots this winter. Walker and Richard are returning starters from a year ago, and look to be solid scoring threats for the Panthers' offense. Richard was named a league All-Star last season, averaging a double-double nearly every time he took the floor last year.
Richard is the quintessential do-it-all type player who is not afraid to get out the Windex and clean the boards with his rebounding ability. Richard poses a strong threat from the perimeter with his jump shot, and how he and Walker perform will be pivotal to the success of the Panthers this season.
Panthers' head coach Justin Carlson expects his team to be successful due to the way their junior varsity program is run, and he expects a smooth transition from some of the younger kids.
"We need to be in the games right off the bat. Getting the ball into transition and getting easy looks will be key for us," said Carlson. "We have a lack of size and lack depth at this point. The younger players will get better as the season goes. We have a lot of returners from the program; the jayvees just need to adjust to the speed and should have success as well."
The goal going into this year for the Panthers is to qualify for the District tournament. Depth will be the main question mark for Ayer-Shirley at the start of the season, but they do possess young talent, it is just a matter of when that young talent will blossom.
Ayer-Shirley opens up play out-of-league against Mid-Wach C foe Clinton at home tonight. The Gaels are reigning Mid-Wach C Champions, and owned a league-best 8-3 road record. Last year, the Panthers offense averaged 52.4 points per game.
"The first game against Clinton is going to tell us right away where we stand," said Carlson. "The kids have really bought into the hard work and know that if you are not going to work hard every day, the close games are going to get away from you."
In the newspaper version, we accidentally mentioned the Panthers' head coach Justin Carlson as "John". We apologize sincerely for the error.