FITCHBURG -- The Monty Tech summer basketball league is an avenue used by local varsity high school teams to stay in shape and keep mentally sharp in the off season.
Head coaches are not permitted to coach at the summer league games per Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, but they are allowed to spectate.
Those in attendance saw Ayer Shirley's commanding 54-37 summer league opening win over Athol. The Panthers under varsity head coach Justin Carlson qualified for the MIAA Division 4 District playoffs and fell in the opening round at Douglas in a nail-biter.
The Panthers graduated key players in Zak Walker, Ryan Richard and Anthony Burwell, but they still have a solid corps of returning players in the mix for the 2014-2015 campaign.
Ayer Shirley was led by rising junior forward Dwight Richard, the younger brother of Ryan Richard, with 15 points and team-high 10 rebounds. Rising senior Christopher Patano paved the way for the Panthers with 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
"Dwight looked really good for us today," Ayer Shirley summer league head coach Mark Jenkins said. "His work ethic definitely transitions over from the advice his older brother Ryan gave him. Knowing (Dwight) the way I do, his conditioning was at a level it isn't normally at this early in the summer."
Rising senior Christopher Patano paved the way for the Panthers with 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
"Chris has really developed a bit of an outside game," Jenkins said.
The Panthers opened the first of two 20 minute halves on a 10-2 run behind the smooth shooting of Dwight Richard and Jon Durben. Athol burned timeout following the driving finish by Durben with 13:04 remaining. Ayer Shirley capitalized on a Red Raiders turnover underneath the basket. Durben found Patano camped out in the left corner for a splash down three-pointer to extend the Panther lead to 11 with under 12 minutes remaining.
Athol's Zach Dodge stymied the Ayer Shirley run with a transition bucket with 11 minutes remaining. Dodge drained a three-pointer from the top of the key on the ensuing Red Raider possession to cut Ayer Shirley's lead to six. Richard netted back-to-back baskets to push the Panther lead to eight points with 7:41 remaining in the first half. The Panthers went into half time with a 30-21 lead, as Dodge managed to keep Athol in the fight.
Patano swished a three-pointer and netted a layup to give Ayer Shirley a 12 point lead, 35-23, with under 14 minutes remaining.
Four minutes later, Patano connected with another three-point dagger from the top of the key fluffing the Panthers' cushion to 19 points. The closest the Red Raiders would get was 15 points on a three from Dodge late in the game.
"This is the second year that the league has been structured into Division 1 and two," Jenkins said of the Monty Tech Summer League. "It has actually helped us a lot as a school of our size.
We don't really gain a lot from playing teams like Fitchburg and Leominster. Patano and Richard are definitely going to have to carry the load as the winter goes along. They have not had a practice coming into this game. We are really pushing playing AAU and basketball over the summer now. A lot of them are playing now. Overall,being a team with that size, we're going to have to use our defense."