AYER -- The Panthers will have a familiar face on its sideline this fall when it kicks off on Sept. 13 at Tyngsboro.
Newly hired head coach Billy Wright was an assistant with the Panthers' program for 11 years. He returns to the team as its second head coach in three years.
Wright was hired three weeks ago by new athletic director Jon Sweeney, who took over for Justin Lamoreaux in late July.
"We are just happy that Bill is our coach," said Sweeney. "We are happy that we have a guy who lives in the community, takes pride in it and sends his kids to public schools. We are very excited to have him onboard for this upcoming season."
Wright inherits a Panthers team that returns seven seniors from last season's 1-10 squad.
Ayer-Shirley will look to pound the ball between the hashes a bit more than fans might be accustomed to, all with a dash of the spread formation."We are going to try to run a little bit more," Wright said. "We are still going to run a lot of the spread stuff because Zak (Walker) is a good quarterback, and we have good skill kids. We are also going to run some power stuff. We are going to be a downhill team."
During the Panthers' first couple of days of conditioning practices, Wright took a hand-off from senior quarterback, Zak Walker, and pounded the ball off tackle. He is not afraid to get in the mix with the players to hammer home strategy -- and keep it loose.
"The biggest thing is trying to get them in shape and keep it fun," the coach said.
Wright brought on three of his own assistants and kept one, Harry LeSage, Matt Griswould, Leigh Zancewicz and Crawford Kilpatrick.
"Harry is back on a part-time basis because he had to take a job," said Wright. "He has been the defensive coordinator for the last five seasons and played at Framingham State. We are going to make it work."
Assistant coach Crawford Kilpatrick graduated from Ayer-Shirley in 2006 and continued his career as a wide receiver at Division 1, Sun Belt Conference member, Western Kentucky.
"Crawford played for me in Pop Warner 12-13 years ago," Wright said. "He went on to play at Western Kentucky and he is doing our receivers and Dbs. He is just enthusiastic as heck; he is loving it and enjoying the experience.
Coach Zancewicz is currently playing defensive end for the Lowell Nor'Easter semi-pro football team.
"He is still playing down in Lowell," said Wright. "He is a defensive end down there and is doing very well. The kids like him, too."
Wright's expectations for the Panthers this season aren't lofty.
"The goal is to get as many kids involved in the program as I can," the coach said. "Once school starts, we are going to recruit heavily.
"The thing is keeping them in the program. We spend so much time with the older kids getting them ready to play on Friday night that sometimes the younger kids get discouraged. We hope to avoid that by keeping the enthusiasm level up and keeping them motivated."