AYER -- No one could have guessed the massive impact Tyler Gaetz would have on the Panthers' district tournament team.
Gaetz is a young man who defied the odds and proved to his team -- and most importantly himself -- that he could be a better person and a great teammate. Gaetz's father went to jail when he was younger, and that is when his world began to spin.
Gaetz's family life wasn't the best of situations growing up, and he found himself falling into the stranglehold of his "friends'" advice.
"My old friends didn't care if I got in trouble," said Gaetz. "Being on the court relieves my stress, and other people do things to relieve my stress. Since he went to jail, I didn't want to follow in his footsteps. Once he was in jail, he realized that he needs to be there for his kids more, and he has made me change myself."
Throughout high school, Gaetz has done all that anyone could ask of him -- he improved his life. Sure, there was a physical altercation with a former teammate his sophomore year, but he immediately apologized for it. Gaetz's has turned to his family and brothers on the basketball team for positive direction.
Many questioned whether Gaetz would make it through the entire season; he not only did that, but was named captain by his coach and teammates halfway through the campaign. Gaetz reflected back to the day of that announcement.
"I remember that day completely," said Gaetz with a large grin on his face. "I came into the gym. It was just an ordinary day getting ready for practice, and (Coach) Carlson came out a little different. He looked at us and talked a little more than he usually does. I didn't know who he was going to say, and then he said my name, and it put a big smile on my face."
Competitive basketball is not the only new thing in Gaetz's life this year, he also joined the soccer team as part of his effort to better himself as a person. The entire high school is pulling for Gaetz, including his classmates, teachers and the administration. Gaetz reflected back to his pre-high school years, when he would take more than 1,000 shots a day, and that work is beginning to pay dividends.
In his early high school days, Gaetz admitted that he found himself mixed in with the wrong crowd, and that is when he decided to change his ways.
"I came out here this year and played soccer, which really got me conditioned for basketball," said Gaetz. "It really got me focused and hanging out with the right people. It felt good coming onto the basketball court for the first game and not watching. Sophomore year, I had a little mishap with someone, and I learned from my mistakes, and I dealt with my mistakes. I feel from all that it made me into a better person."
The old adage coaches often recite is play the way you practice. For Gaetz, it is not uncommon to see him dive into the foldaway bleachers for a loose ball in practice during five-on-fives because he would not think twice to do it in the game.
Gaetz averages 14 points per game and ranks amongst the Mid-Wach D league's top tier scoring threats. No one expected him to develop into the man and basketball player he has become. Two weeks ago at the Clark Tournament, a couple of schools expressed their interest in Gaetz. Wellesely College out of the NEWMAC Conference in Division 3 expressed interest in the surprise success story.
When Gaetz is playing well, so are the Panthers. Ayer-Shirley made a trip to the Division 3 Central Mass. tournament, where they fell to Quaboag in the opening round. Carlson is very high on his senior captain's comeback story and feels he is a crucial component in the Panthers' successful run.
"He is an extremely talented kid," said Carlson. "Everyone was hoping that he would make it through the entire basketball season. He has had a really special year. He really pulled us, and stepped up to be the guy who hits the big shots for us."
Gaetz has yet to determine what course of study he plans to pursue when he attends college in the fall, but has shown some interest in writing and English. Gaetz has used his poetry and journal writing as a tool to soothe and heal the pain he has endured from the mental trauma in his life.
Gaetz and his father have since rekindled their relationship and see each other as often as they can. Sports are about more than tossing a ball through a hoop -- they are about teaching life lessons, and Gaetz has received an A.
"It is just time for a new me," said Gaetz. "I used to be all about saying the last word in a fight, but now I don't want to fight anymore. I don't want to hurt anybody, or myself. I've been through that when I was younger. I want to go to college, maintain my GPA and play basketball."