AYER -- Ayer Shirley senior basketball players Melissa Belanger and Gabby Hebert have a very special bond.
The pair first met in travel basketball when they were in the fifth-grade. Belanger, who hails from Ayer, and Hebert, of Shirley, would likely have never met if it had not been for the game of basketball.
"Me and Gabs have been playing together since our tournament team in the fifth-grade," Belanger said. "It was sweet that we got to grow up together playing basketball. We formed our friendship -- which is pretty strong through basketball."
Belanger is not the type of player who will fill up the statsheet with points, however, she makes up for it with her hustle and grit. If there was a statistic for diving on loose balls, chances are Belanger would be atop the category.
"Melissa is a little bit more of our vocal leader," Lady Panthers head coach Pete Page said. "She kind of gets the team fired up. She is one of those kids who will step up and say something when it needs to be said. She is also one of our best communicators on the floor, and when you combine that with diving for loose-balls whether we are up by 20 or down by 20, she is going to be the first one on it."
Defensively, Belanger is one of the Lady Panthers' most ferocious on-ball defenders. Page has no qualms pitting Belanger on the opponents leading scorer.
"We typically put Melissa on the other team's best player to keep Gabby out of foul trouble," he said. "She brings that leadership and energy on the floor each and every day."
Hebert is the quiet, unassuming leader of the Lady Panthers' offense. As soon as she puts on her uniform, Hebert transforms into an unstoppable scoring and rebounding machine. For what she doesn't say with her words, Hebert speaks volumes with her actions. Hebert averages a little over 12 points and 10 rebounds-per-game.
"Gabby really leads by example," Page said. "The things that Gabby does are a lot of behind-the-scenes things. There is an off-season conditioning program that we run, and she does not miss anything. When it comes to this program, Gabby does everything we need her to do. Her dedication is something we are really going to miss next year."
Hebert's and Belanger's bound through sports took another turn last fall, when girls' soccer head coach Justin Carlson approached the duo and urged them to come out for the team. Belanger and Hebert went out to tryouts, and quickly found out there were no cuts made.
Belanger ended up being the starting goaltender of a Lady Panthers' team, which advanced to the first round of the Central Mass. Division Four playoffs with a No. 4 seed. Hebert was not too far from her friend Belanger; she played defender.
"I was the goalie and she was on defense," Belanger said. "We both started together and decided to do it together since we never played. Carlson came up to us and said 'you guys are athletes, you need to try out.' It actually turned out to be really fun."
Hebert and Belanger are always actively involved with the Ayer Shirley youth basketball program. Page often invites the young players inside the locker room during games and to practice, so they can soak in what it takes to be a successful high-school player.
"If you were a fifth- or sixth-grader coming up, and you had to look up and say 'Hey, this is what I want to be like when I get there,' these are the kids you would want to model yourself after," he said. "They don't take a day off in games or in practices. You have Gabby who can score and Melissa who dives for loose balls and is vocal. They are a perfect mix of chemistry.
"It all goes back to their parents," he said. "Gabby's parents, Jay and Carol Hebert, have helped the program on numerous occasions. Steve, Mike, Debbie and Chelsea Belanger have also done a lot for this program. They're both great kids with great families to boot."