AYER -- The Ayer Lil' Panthers softball team went 11-0 under head coach James Esielionis and his assistants John Katter, Manual Breest and pitching coordinator Kassie Breest.

At the start of the season, the Lil Panthers were to split into two teams due to large numbers, but something changed.

"We were supposed to have two teams because we had so many girls," said Esielionis. "A lot of them were not showing up to the practices before the season started. The practice before the start of the first game they all showed up. They pretty much bonded right from the start."

In the 9-10-year-old division of the Macintosh league there is no chance for the Lil Panthers to compete for a playoff title, but in the eyes of Esielionis and his staff, that is alright.

"We define a successful season not by the number of wins, but by how much pride these young ladies have in what they accomplished as individuals and, most importantly, as a team. The best way I can describe how this team grew through the season is as a family."

From day one Esielionis made it clear to his team that winning was not overly important, but having fun while playing the game was. The Lil' Panthers was a dedicated bunch that bought into Esielionis and his staff's message about being unselfish and having fun.

"They came and played the game 110 percent," said Esielionis. "They came in and did everything they had to do. This is the best team I have ever been able to coach. Not one of them during the season just thought about themselves.



Ayer picked up its final win of the season last Wednesday and Esielionis said that he was impressed with the maturity his team displayed.

"They were very professional as players," said Esielionis. "They were very good sports. They were just incredible. Even the ones who never played paid attention and they got it done."

Esielionis said that the parents were instrumental in supporting the Lil Panthers' successful season. "The parents and everybody was involved," said Esielionis. "I can't say enough about these girls trying their hardest. They didn't just do it for themselves; they wanted to do it for the coaches and the parents. It was great."

Jeff Thomas of the Ayer-Shirley Parks and Recreation Department said that at the Minors level of softball, wins aren't an accurate measurement for success.

"They have had an excellent season," said Thomas on the girls' undefeated season. "For me at this level, I don't consider wins-and-losses to be a barometer for how successful a team is. They have been successful for a different reason.

"What I see is infectious enthusiasm in practice and in games," he said. "That's what is really special about this team. They are a really unique group of parents, coaches and players that make this a truly remarkable team."

Esielionis said that the undefeated season was a confidence-booster for the 15 girl Lil' Panthers roster.

"It gave them a lot of confidence," the coach said. "Their confidence throughout the whole season was unbelievable. I didn't have one issue with confidence. If their parents told them they would not be able to make a game, they put up a stink. They wanted to be there because they didn't want to let their team down."

When the Lil' Panthers won its final game of the season, the players did not gloat.

"First, we shook hands," the coach said. "We invited the other team to the concession stand and they were so excited. What I stressed to them every game was that I don't care if you lose on the field, just don't lose in your heart."

When the season ended, Esielionis received a card from one of his players thanking him for being her coach.

"I even got a card stating, 'Thank you, Jim, for being the coach of the softball team. Because of you I want to play softball for the rest of my life,'" said Esielionis. "I can't express enough how great this team was."

The Lil Panthers was comprised of Isabelle Katter, Amy Esielionis, Mindie Breest, Rachel Lewis, Olivia Oestreicher, Ashleigh Oestreicher, Lezlie Walker, Madison Holsombach, Angelina Herbst, Grace Martin, Emily Granger, Kaylin Mango, Lorelei Folger, Annika Preston and Sara Surette.