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AYER – Buoyed by the return of its top three pitchers from a season ago, the Ayer baseball team looks armed and dangerous as the Panthers bid for post-season play after just falling short last year with an 8-10 record.

Righthanders John Shivo and Jon Bollinger, will be joined by southpaw Jason Jones to give the Panthers a formidable starting three. They will be complemented by some strong veterans and some hard-working newcomers as an “ayer of optimism” is in place entering the season.

“Our pitching is a strength,” said second-year Ayer coach Jim Welch. “Our three pitchers all have different looks to them. We are strong up the middle and we will be aggressive with our running game.”

Shivo is a hard-thrower who continues to improve.

“John throws hard, has a good curve ball and has decent command,” said Welch. “He was our number one pitcher last year and has a great attitude, and is a smart team player. He has good power and will hit fourth.” Shivo will also play first base this season.

But Jones, a captain who also plays first base, and Bollinger are a perfect complement to Shivo.

“Jason has deceptive speed, good control and a nice curve ball,” said Welch. “He provides a different look. He is a strong defensive first baseman, has a great attitude and has provided a strong presence with his leadership.

“Jon is crafty and is always around the plate,” said Welch. “He has played the infield until now but is learning to play left field and is a work in progress. Offensively, he is a contact hitter with some pop and probably will bat fifth. He is also a good bunter.”

The Panthers’ strength up the middle comes from junior catcher Will Comerford, senior shortstop Derek Migrants, a shortstop, and sophomore second baseman Kenny Rollins.

“Will is very athletic and has good speed and a strong arm,” said Welch. “He is our most versatile player but will catch because he is so valuable there. He will hit leadoff as he knows how to get on base and is a stolen base threat.

“Derek is the most talented kid in the league,” said Welch. “He is a great hitter with power and is strong defensively with good quickness. He is experienced and there are no holes in his game. He will also do some closing for us and is a hard thrower.

“Kenny has work hard and is much improved this season,” said Welch. “He is a solid fielder and could hit number two in the lineup. He is learning to use the opposite field offensively, and just needs more experience at this level.”

The other three starters will be sophomore Cliff Shultz at third base, freshman Jon Minnich in center field, and senior Dan Quin in right field.

“Cliff played on the junior varsity team last year and has made the team because of his defense and his work ethic,” said Welch. “He is smart and understands the game.

“Jon is left-handed all the way and has tremendous potential,” said Welch. “He has good size, speed and power and just needs to learn the game.

“Dan started in left field last year and is our most consistent outfielder,” said Welch. “He is smart, fundamentally sound and is a student of the game. He is a good contact hitter and plays within his ability.”

Providing experience a versatility off the bench will be senior Josh Pinard, who can play both first and third base.

“Josh works hard and is one of the leaders of the team,” said Welch. “He has good power and is pushing for a starting berth.”

Adding depth for the Panthers will be senior outfielders Korey Lawrence and Carlos Tennyson, junior catcher-outfielder Andrew Gambrell, and junior second baseman Mike Skywora.

“Korey is new to the team and is athletic and quick on the bases,” said Welch. “Carlos is up from the junior varsity team and is a good athlete with speed. Andrew is up from the junior varsity team and is the back-up catcher, while Mike has been working hard and has a great attitude.”

What are the concerns for the Panthers?

“We are young at crucial positions as we start two sophomores and a freshman,” said Welch. “We also must stay healthy. The key to the season is to get the pitching we expect and to play good defense. Our goal is to make the Districts and beyond, and I think that goal is realistic. We have a great group of kids who are working hard and taking this seriously.”