AYER -- Head coach Justin Carlson and the 22 members of the Ayer-Shirley girls soccer team are hoping to put their winless woes of 2012 behind them.
The Lady Panthers finished in the basement of the Midland-Wachusett D League with a record of 0-12-1. Ayer-Shirley's lone point came in its 2-2 draw with Parker Charter School in September of last year.
In 2013, the buzzword around the Panthers' practice pitch is mature. The girls have since developed a chemistry that was not prevalent last fall.
"We were a relatively young team last season," Carlson said. "We were competing with teams who had a lot of upperclassmen. The girls have bought into working hard. The goal for us is to qualify for the postseason. I think it's possible, we have a lot of tough games on our schedule. The games that we lost last year, we have to grind them out. They either have to be ties, or we have to win those games."
The Lady Panthers had a whole host of problems finding the back of the cage last season. Ayer-Shirley collectively averaged less than a goal-per-game. Carlson implemented a new system in the hope of upping his team's goals-for-margin into a more respectable range. That new formation is the 4-3-3.
"One of our weaknesses last year was scoring goals and this is a little bit more aggressive offensively," said Carlson. "The formation has its strength and weaknesses for sure, but I think it is going to be good for us.
The Lady Panthers will have three defenders in its new formation, including its junior goalie, Melissa Belanger. Belanger is in just her second season of organized soccer.
"She continued to improve as the season went on last year," the coach said. "She has come in really excited about this season. She really likes the game of soccer now, and she has a winning attitude.
"She has pretty good hands and is just continuing to improve in all phases of the game every day in her punting and decision-making. She is not afraid to get down and get after a ball."
Junior Justine Carrillo and senior Gabby Hebert will help lock down the central back positions. Having no youth on its back line, the Lady Panthers' defense is shaping up to be its strongest component.
"Justine Carrillo has a really strong leg and has the ability to clear the ball away from any danger," Carlson said. "She is also our vocal leader back there and can help get everybody on the same page with our offside traps. We kind off feed off her energy in the back."
Hebert, a standout player on the basketball court this past winter, gives Ayer-Shirley rigidity on its back line.
"She moves really well for how tall she is," said Carlson on Hebert. "She can be aggressive and kind of get the forwards off the ball because of how strong she is. She has good footwork because of basketball, and she has a soft touch, too. She can distribute the ball well to the midfield."
Junior Megan Krueger, a two-year starter, will get her kicks this season at the defensive midfield.
"Megan is one of our more skilled field players," the coach said. "She is probably one of the smartest soccer players on our team. She is very aggressive and will be able to stop any of the counter attacks right at the midfield and slow it down so our outside flanks can get back."
Cayla Justice was a forward last year but with the introduction of the 4-3-3 formation, she has been shuffled to the attacking-mid position. Justice is a dual-threat who can shoot effectively with both feet.
At the other attacking midfield will be freshman Taryn Matta who, according to Carlson, plays above a freshman level.
"She has a really smart soccer mind," said Carlson. "She will be really creative in the midfield for us. She will be distributing to her sister, so they will have that connection back-and-forth. They have really good communication with each other. Taryn can also score from that side of the 18, too."
Senior captain Holly Caires wants to go out on a high note after last year's rebuild.
"We spent last season building up the team and having the freshmen get some experience being on a varsity team," said Caires. "Now that we have that season out of the way, everybody is looking to win and make it to districts. I have seen a lot more determination, spirit and want to win."