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By Ed Niser

eniser@nashobavalleyvoice.com

AYER — Ayer Shirley basketball is one year removed from its first trip to the historic Clark Tournament since 2013. The Panthers ran into the streaky-shooting Sutton Sammies out of the Dual Valley League and fell, 65-25.

The Panthers come into the season after graduating seniors John Gendron, Mike Davis and Christopher Patano, who accounted for a lot of the team’s rebounds.

Ayer Shirley is young but still determined to make a push for the postseason once again.

The Panthers fell 50-49 in last season’s Division 4 Central Mass quarterfinal at Monty Tech. A loss that head coach Justin Carlson found uncharacteristic of the 2014-2015 team.

“We had a chance to beat Monty Tech, but we had three guys foul out in the fourth quarter,” said Carlson. “The coaching staff of myself, Mark Giusto and Ryan Goodman are really excited about the upside that this group has. Hopefully, we can surprise some people this year. If not, I think we have what it takes to make this team relevant.”

Goodman graduated from Ayer Shirley Regional High School in 2012 and is a reminder to the Panthers’ current basketball team of what is expected of them.

Carlson said that Ayer Shirley will put the majority of its focus in practice on the defensive side of the floor.

Ayer Shirley is going to have to deal with the loss of DJ Richard for at least 3-4 weeks after he suffered a broken wrist during the football season.

“We are really looking at the people who are willing to defend in practice,” he said. “DJ didn’t even realize he had a broken wrist. He was participating in tryouts, and he looked good then. We are optimistic that he will have a speedy recovery. He is a key contributor down low for us.”

The first five to hit the floor for Ayer Shirley when it opens up Monday at home against St. Mary’s of Worcester will likely be: Jeff Gendron and Jon Durben at guard, Alex Patano at forward, seniors Luther Salmon and Peter Fredericks are both vying for playing time.

Ayer Shirley also added some athleticism in football seniors Zach Patton and in Branden Percoskie, who has proven that he has some upside — literally speaking, from his time on the gridiron.

“We look for defense and rebounds and if those kids are able to do that — they’ll be a help going forward,” Carlson said. “It is tough right now to determine a starting five. We have about 28 in the program.

Junior Ben Hebert is a player who is kind of off the radar. I think he can shoot, rebound and defend well. Our focus has to be on defense and to get out in transition on turnovers.”

Ayer Shirley’s returning players know when they walk through the doors that Carlson and assistant coaches Mark Giusto and Goodman are looking for a tough, defensive-minded bunch.

There are no surprises.

“It has been like that for the past few years,” Carlson said. “We will just try and compete and stay in as many games as we can and get them in the end.”

The Panthers finished the season at 12-10 last year and was tied for second with Bromfield behind league champion Maynard.

While much of the league returns most, if not all, of its weapons from last year, Ayer Shirley finds itself with an abundance of youth.

“The league is really wide open,” Carlson said. “Maynard and West Boylston are going to be really tough this year. Tahanto kind of came on strong last year. It is just one of those things. I feel like we are going to be battling against some of the more experienced teams.

“With the football team and soccer team being under Phil Marchegiani and Giusto,” said Carlson, “they have that structure. Unfortunately, we have had to build up the confidence of some of those football guys in the past, but now they know what it takes to win.”

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