Local sports legends return home

By Ed Niser

DEVENS — For a small community, Ayer Shirley Regional High School, formerly Ayer High School, has a tradition steeped in athletic greatness.

The Ayer Shirley Regional High School Athletic Hall of Fame committee paid homage to its sports heroes of years past with its second induction class Saturday night at the Devens Inn and Conference Center.

Among the inductees were: Ken Blanchette (former Nashoba Publishing Sports Editor, Class of 1967), Roderick “Roddy” Brooks (Class of 1962), Larry Morris (Class of 1981), Jane Steinberg, Lorna Briggs (Class of 1978), Neal Connor (Class of 1981), Mike Morris (Class of 1981), Shirley Woods (Class of 1981) and the 1979 boys’ track and field team.

“All of the inductees here tonight are leaders and role models in our community and now you will be immortalized as that.” said Ayer Shirley athletic director Jon Sweeney at the start of Saturday’s banquet.

Of the inductees, Blanchette was the benefactor. Ken selflessly promoted the accomplishments of local athletes with his baby, “Sports Night”, an event where he highlighted the area’s best young people, who just so happened to play sports.

Blanchette put more stock into whether or not the player was a good student and a better person, rather than if he or she is a standout athlete.

“Froggy”, as he is affectionately known by his peers, was a member of the 1967 Ayer High School graduation class and he also played basketball.

“Ken was committed to making sure that the accomplishments of Ayer athletics would be known to man and he devoted his life to it,” said Sweeney. “When I first took the job, all I heard from coach Lamoreaux was about ‘Sports Night.’

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate in it. The theme was not that you had to be good at sports, but you had to be a good person. Ken used his time and his work to model what it means to have sportsmanship.”

The next to be honored was Brooks, who received football scholarship from UMass and was a co-captain of the 1966 Yankee Conference championship team. Brooks, a linebacker/tackle, was a tireless worker in the weight room, according to Bob Gardner, a close friend, spoke on his behalf. Brooks was drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions, but failed a team physical due to back issues.

Brooks was “one of the boys” according to his yearbook description.

“I never met Rod, but he is recognized as one of the best athletes to ever come out of Ayer High,” said Dan Gleason.”He was very happy to be remembered.”

Next up were a pair of Ayer High girls’ basketball stars in Briggs and Woods.

Woods, a two-time Lowell Sun All-Star, was a three-sport captain in both softball and field hockey, as well as basketball. She averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds per game and scored a career 782 points in a time before the three-point line was established. Woods was an integral piece of the Panthers’ undefeated league championship team and state runner-up in 1980 and 1981.

“When I received the call from Tony (Casavecchia) saying that I was inducted: I immediately texted coach Steinberg and asked: how the heck did this happen?, ” joked Woods. “We exchanged texts about every stat that she remembered from 30-years-ago. For me, they’re just numbers in a book. We as a team were pretty amazing.”

Briggs was a senior captain in field hockey, basketball and softball. She averaged 17 points-per-game.

But behind every great basketball player, there is a great coach and former Ayer athletic director, Steinberg, is just that. Her biggest accomplishment came off the hardwood, when she fought for equal pay for men and women in the 1970s — and won.

Steinberg held a 160-62 overall record as the girls’ basketball head coach. She was the Lowell Sun coach of the year three times and even won the honor once in softball.

“We had always dreamed about having a hall of fame back in the 1980s and it never came,” said Steinberg. “Thank you guys for this great tradition. We are humbled by being inducted into a hall of fame. The Ayer High School community in the 1970s was amazing. We loved each other. The coaches and the kids were very tight. We got where we were through hard work. I wanted to give my kids every opportunity to keep growing.”

Steinberg became the school’s athletic director in 1991. She coached various sports at Ayer from 1971-2006. Steinberg had a strict no-boys/men allowed policy in her practice gym.Steinberg recounted how she chased away a college football coach, who was there to recruit one of the Morris brothers, she said.

“I had a strict policy of no boys, no men and no coaches allowed,” joked Steinberg. “My girls were just out of control. One time, we were practicing before going to the state championship — some guy goes walking through the gym and I said: out!

“He was still walking by the door, so I had to escort him out. Chet Steele, the athletic director, asked me if I knew who I just kicked out and I said: ‘I don’t care. He’s a guy.’ He (Steele) said: ‘He is the head coach of Wisconsin, and I said: ‘I don’t give a crap.’ No guys came into the gym after that because my girls needed guidance.”

Fifty-feet, 4 inches — that’s how far Connor leapt to set and still hold the Massachusetts Track and Field record. He was also a key member of the 1979 and 1981 4×100 relay team that consisted of: Mike, Larry and Jamie Morris that holds the New England record of 41.2 seconds. Connor racked up the individual accolades in the triple-jump, where he was a district, state and New England champion.

Also in 1981, Neal matched his state record distance in the triple-jump at the outdoor national meet in Chicago, Illinois and brought the silver medal back to Ayer. Neal was inducted into the Massachusetts Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame in the triple-jump. “I would like to thank the committee for inducting me,” said Connor. “The coaches and team we had in 1979,1980, 1981 were ain’t nothing but brothers and sisters doing what they were taught to do. I am truly blessed to be aside all of those brothers doing what we did best — perform.” Mike Morris was a member of the 1980 Ayer High School Super Bowl team and was inducted as a sprinter to the MA State Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame this year. Mike’s accolades followed him to Syracuse University, where he holds the school record in the 100m (10.32) and 200m (20.52). He was also an All-American in the 55-yard dash. Morris holds the state record in the 100m (10.4) and New England (10.36)

Larry Morris is described by Lamoreaux as “the best high school football player he has ever coached” and in 36 years, he has coached many great ones. Larry broke the rushing records his brother, Joe, set with 1,939 yards and 33 touchdowns in 1980. “Guys, I don’t wear suits to these events because I feel at home,” said Larry Morris. “I wear suits every day to work. This is home for me. All of my days playing at Ayer High School, I did it for everyone else. I didn’t do it for myself — I didn’t need it. And I don’t need it now. I thank everyone very much for inducting me.”

The 1979 boys’ track and field team was a league, district and state champions was inducted.

And after Saturday night, Ayer’s deep sports history will live on.

“We live in a time now that I believe leadership is underrated,” said Sweeney. “This (Ayer) is all of your home. We are a family, guys. We are a smaller school and we respect each and every one of you.”