Panama Sailing In Right Direction

Trip To Final 4 In Binghamton Is Latest Example

Celebrating athletic milestones at Panama Central School have become a common occurrence in recent years, including last Saturday’s Class D Far West Regional win by the boys basketball team. Photo by Debbra Bailey

When the Panama boys basketball team travels to Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton for a New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class D semifinal meeting with Section II Oppenheimer-Ephratah/St. Johnsville early Saturday afternoon, they will be the next in a long line of recent Panther squads to seek success at the highest level.

Ed Nelson’s team, which sits at 18-6 after a 56-51 win over Section V Belfast in the Far West Regional, returns to the state final four for the second time in three years, following in the footsteps of Panama’s girls basketball and volleyball programs over the past decade.

Winning big games has become a Panther tradition, and it is one that Nelson and his team are looking to build on.

“The thing is we have really good athletic programs across the board,” Nelson said. “You look at volleyball, tennis, swimming. Whatever sport it is, we have coaches who work really hard and put in the hours. We have an athletic director, Chris Payne, who is kind of the captain of the ship, who has been running the ship to a T. I give him a lot of credit, He finds coaches who give a lot of time and sacrifice for their sports programs.”

When it comes down to the end of the year, there are only a handful of teams who finish the season with a climactic victory and a state title. Many of the players now hoping to end this season in just such a fashion recall what it was like to end up on the other side of that coin in 2015-16.

That year, the Panthers rode a stacked roster to a Section VI title and a final four appearance, falling to Section VII Moriah via a 62-59 final.

“That team in 15-16 it felt like we had a target on our back and going through that whole deal. … This doesn’t feel like that. It kind of feels like we are fighting for respect. I think it is making the kids fight harder and having the kids want to get some respect across the state. We are stoking that underdog role now.”

Unlike four seasons ago, Nelson’s squad began this season with adversity right from the get-go. The team got a late start to to begin practices and conditioning after Clymer/Sherman/Panama’s NYSPHSAA Class D football championship run into late November.

Now, taking some time to get their feet under them, the Panthers have blossomed into a truly versatile unit. Cameron Barmore, who leads the Panthers averaging 20.8 points per game, was limited to 6 in the Far West Regional, but that just meant that other players got a chance to shine bright.

“If you had said that Cameron Barmore was going to score six points I don’t think anyone would think we had a chance to win,” Nelson said of that game.

But in the face of that offensive struggle, Barmore grabbed17 rebounds while teammates Jack Sperry and Dominic Spontaneo combined for 10 3-pointers to guide Panama back to the state final four.

“It means a lot,” Sperry said of returning to the final four after that game. “They were here a couple years ago and they lost in the first game, so we wanted to try and come back. We knew this would be a good year for us. We started off slow in the beginning, but we finally started playing together and we’re starting to look pretty good.”

In addition to their slow start to the winter season, Panama had to run through the gauntlet early on against talented Class C teams like Chautauqua Lake and Randolph.

One of the lessons to success may end up being that iron sharpens iron.

“Our league has been really tough the last couple of years, so these kids are battle-tested. That is for sure,” Nelson said.

Throughout the course of his playoff run, Nelson has favored a car analogy to describe his team against his squad of three years ago. In 2015-16, the Panthers, Nelson said, were a sports car dripping with talent — like a Ferrari.

But this year’s team just gets things done, like a pickup truck–a Ford F250, Nelson said.

“We just keep grinding, grinding until we win,” Sperry said.

Ferraris have their place and time, but you don’t see that many on the road 10 years down the line.