TROY - The Panama Panthers had been in this position before, but Sunday they seemed to take their loss to Heuvelton at the state Final Four a little harder than before.
Two years ago, Panama was making its first trip to Troy and rallying behind senior Brittany Lenart, the school's all-time leading scorer. The Panthers' loss came in the semifinals to a superior Bulldogs team that was also tasting the championship level of success for the first time. Despite losing Lenart, the girls from Panama had a feeling that they would be back with such a loaded roster returning.
They were back, and last year the Panthers advanced to the finals, but didn't have time to think about their loss. Trailing by single digits late in the game, an Emilee Sperry 3-pointer at the buzzer pulled them within two on the scoreboard at the end.
Photo by Deb Bailey
The Lady Panthers huddle during the game at the Edward F. McDonough Sports Complex.
It hurt watching seniors Taylor Bowen and Sperry talk postgame knowing their high school careers were over, but it likely took time to sink in during their long bus ride back to southern Chautauqua County after such a frantic finish to the game.
This time the girls were confident. After last year's two-point loss, the Panthers knew they could play with Heuvelton.
All the slogans pointed toward their success. "Unfinished Business," "We Believe," "Third Time's The Charm."
That's what made Sunday's performance at the Edward F. McDonough Sports Complex so disheartening. The Panthers had played much better on countless nights this season.
"They started off on a big run. We've come back from far worse. We were prepared, we were ready to go and we knew what we had to do," senior Nicole Johnson said following the loss. "Our shots just didn't fall at times. We didn't get that steal, missed that pass or had that turnover."
But as the clock ticked down, hope turned to sadness and tears for the Panthers. Substitution after substitution left the game wondering what had happened.
"She kept that team in it, even when we were down, she was firing them up," coach Jeff Angeletti said of Johnson. "We had some youth and inexperience. Even handling the ball we lost our composure a little bit."
Johnson, Tara Sweeney and Erin Fransen will certainly be missed. Over the past year and a half, Johnson has been the unquestioned emotional leader of the Panthers. Sweeney is one of the most athletic girls on the team and constantly is asked to guard the opposition's best player while Fransen is the kind of practice player every school needs to make the starters better.
"The absolute hustle, the heart and determination. Especially in practice, Tara is such a prime player to get everybody else to play at their best," Angeletti said when asked what he would miss from Sweeney. "We are going to miss that drive and that push for everybody else."
But the Panthers are still well-stocked to challenge Franklinville in Section VI for a spot in the Far West Regional, and ultimately travel east for years to come.
Starting point guard Lauren Barmore is a junior while sophomore Abi Lisciandro seems poised to fill a starting role next winter.
"I'm so blessed to have such a wonderful family and team," Johnson said late Sunday morning. "We worked hard to get here every year and I have no doubt that they'll be back here next year working hard for the next seniors coming up."
Sophomore Madalyn Bowen's confidence has grown by leaps and bounds since playing at the Final Four as an eighth-grader, as evidenced by her 20-point performance Sunday highlighted by a trio of 3-pointers. Freshman Natalie Angeletti has the opportunity to become one of the county's all-time leading scorers over the next three years with her size and ability in the paint. She had 19 points Sunday and earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
"Madalyn and Nat have played the game for a long time. (Madalyn) knows her role for next year. I thought Nat composed herself. For a freshman, she still has a long way to go, but she has grown as this year has gone on as well, understanding her role, feeling double teams, kicking it out and trying to get the other girls involved more."
And players like sophomore Maci Johnson, junior Elle Angeletti, sophomore Alexys Marsh and freshman Kylie Schnars are all waiting for their opportunities to make their presence felt for the Panthers.
"These girls will go right back at it," Coach Angeletti said. " They want this, they got that taste of it and they want it back. That's just the players they are."
Rest assured, Panama will be back.
"It's all about the journey. It's not about the wins and the losses," Coach Angeletti said. "It's stuff that our girls will never forget."