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AYER — By all accounts, the 11-year marriage of the Ayer and Groton-Dunstable football programs has been a happy one. However, the districts appear set to transition away from that arrangement starting this fall.

Groton-Dunstable is expected to launch a junior-varsity team for the 2007 season pending the approval of this year’s budget for the Athletic Department, said school Athletic Director Dan Twomey. Granted that, the school is looking to add a varsity team by 2009.

Twomey attributed the move to growth in the student body at Groton-Dunstable. The high school had less than 400 students when it entered it’s arrangement with Ayer. Now it has twice that, and the school has critical mass to launch its own program.

Even though it entails leaving a program where the varsity team took home a share of the division crown last year, Twomey said it is time for the move.

“There will be some challenges, but I have to consider what’s best for Groton-Dunstable’s student athletes,” he said.

At this point, that includes confirmation that juniors and seniors can stay on the Ayer team through graduation, which Twomey said has yet to be made official.

However, Ayer High School Principal Don Parker said Groton-Dunstable football players will be with the Panthers during that window.

“It’s going to be a two-year withdrawal of Groton out of the program,” he said.

With the departure phased, Parker said the move will likely have the largest effect on the junior-varsity team, which will feel the impact next fall. He acknowledged it’s going to be a challenge for the Panthers to maintain their current level of play when losing so many players.

Groton-Dunstable historically has sent an average of 15 students to the Panthers each season, said Twomey, but that figure climbed to the mid-20s in 2005 and topped out at 36 students last year.

“We’ve got to be creative to find ways to replace the 20 to 25 students we’re losing from Groton, and I hope we’re up to doing that,” said Parker.

Ayer Athletic Director Justin Lamoreaux confirmed that loss could be a major hit for the program, which fielded approximately 40 students from Ayer last year.

Further, he cited the preliminary nature of things as a deterrent to speculation. While there’s been a great deal of talk about dissolving the current arrangement, Lamoreaux said there’s nothing in writing. The plan hinges on a budget approval in Groton-Dunstable, he said, and any new arrangement would still have to be approved by both districts and the state to take effect.

“It takes agreements from all three parties to make this happen,” he said. “I’m not making any predictions at all.”

However, after further discussion Lamoreaux conceded some expectation that things will change for Panther football next fall.

“I think things will be different next year,” he said. “(But) I don’t know how they’ll be different.”

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