Nelson Guides Panama To Within Seconds Of Title Game

Head coach Ed Nelson and the Panama Panthers finished 18-7 with a loss in overtime of the NYSPHSAA Class D semifinals. P-J file photo

Much like its NCAA Division 1 counterpart, the road to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association basketball Final Four is always going to be filled with twists and turns.

Once teams get out of the regular season anything can, and will, happen when single elimination is on the line. Hot teams get cold, cold teams get hot, veterans miss shots, young players step up, and surprises always happen.

The Panama Panthers, who returned to the Class D Final Four for the second time since 2016, understood the rules of the postseason well. Perhaps that is the reason their season took them so far.

“You watch March Madness and the tournament. I think the thing that is nice about basketball is that you just have to keep playing,” said head coach Ed Nelson. “What happened in the past is over. When you are playing against good competition there is a lot of parity. It is one of the things that makes it stressful, but it also makes it fun.”

Nelson and company began the year later than they might have liked for a reason no one was complaining about– Clymer/Sherman/Panama’s NYSPHSAA Class D football championship.

Head coach Ed Nelson guided Panama to its second NYSPHSAA Final Four in the past four years. P-J file photo

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Despite the fact that it was for a happy cause, the Panthers still took some time to get their feet under them on the hardwood–not that their schedule did them any favors.

In their first six games Panama suffered a pair of losses to Randolph in addition to falling against Chautauqua Lake in their season opener and Clymer in the third game of the year.

It may not have felt like it at the time, but those early slips may have ultimately helped contribute to a season that included a 57-48 Section VI Class D title win over Forestville, a 56-51 Far West Regional win over Section V Belfast, and an 18-7 record.

“One thing this team did that a lot of teams don’t is that we kept getting better every day. We knew that we had some good athletes, and we put them in places where they could be successful,” said Nelson. “There was no team really that we played the last two years where we didn’t have to compete. We had to compete every single night. These kids were battle-tested, and going up to play a team like Belfast it paid dividends.”

After dealing with the likes of Post-Journal Player of the Year Tyler Hind of Randolph on two separate occasions, both times ending up on the wrong end of the scoreboard, the Panthers were able to keep their cool in the face of an awesome individual effort from Adam Enders. The star senior scored 39 points in the Far West Regional, but each and every time Belfast made a run, the Panthers were able to counter with senior leadership of their own.

Leading the ship that night was Jack Sperry with six 3s, Dominic Spontaneo with four, and Adam Hovey with a tenacious defensive effort.

“When this group of seniors were freshman, we had that team that went to the Final Four. We brought them out to a couple tournaments and some games. I think they saw that team compete and saw the work they put in to get to that point. It is going to be tough to rebound from this senior class. We are going to miss this team,”

Leaving after this year will be Sperry, Spontaneo, Hovey, Isaac Lawson, Jacob Harper and Ryan Joslyn.

The Panthers will return a core led by Cameron Barmore and Gerrit Hinsdale.

Even when the surprises of the postseason did not fall in its favor, Panama was able to remain focused. After giving up a four-point play to Tyler Leon in the closing seconds of Class D semifinal in Binghamton, the Panthers found themselves headed to overtime after appearing to have a trip to the finals in hand.

That improbable turn of events would have crushed the spirits of lesser teams, but Panama and Nelson, this year’s Post-Journal Coach of the Year, returned to the hardwood with the same intensity in overtime they had brought to every other period this season.

“When a play like that happens, it is a shocker,” he said. “There aren’t many times you hear about that with guy hitting the only three of his career the way he did. We just said, ‘Hey, forget about it, keep giving defensive effort the way you have.'”

Nelson favored a variety of analogies to describe his team this year, a favorite relying on cars.

While other teams have been pedigreed sports cars, this year’s Panama team was decidedly working class. They may not have started out with the fanciest of rosters, but by the end of the season every piece had been stripped down and retooled to perform at the highest level.

“There is something to be said about a team that is blue collar,” said Nelson “Every time we start a game we would tell the boys to put their hardhats on. We said as the year went along we were the Ford F250, but by the end of the year we had a 6-inch lift kit, and a nice plow and some big rims. We built that machine up a little bit.”