Chautauqua Star

Coach of the Week: Deb Palmer, Panama Volleyball

Panama’s girls’ volleyball team wrapped up yet another winning regular season this week, finishing its slate with a 16-1 record, and await a likely high seed in the Class D playoffs which begin next week.

Finding the Lady Panthers atop their division standings, this year as champions of the newly formed Division 4, should be no surprise considering the program’s long run of successes under head coach Deb Palmer.

Palmer has been coaching for 37 seasons, with her first job coming at Whitesville Central School in 1973 when she coached four sports for $100 per sport.

The Chautauqua County native first gained an appreciation for coaching while at Chautauqua High School learning from legendary coach Norm Becker.

“He was a really big figure in the county. I thought it would be fun getting into coaching after watching him,” Palmer recalled.

After graduating from high school, Palmer enrolled at Cortland University, earning a degree in physical education with a minor in coaching while playing softball collegiately.

“I was the salutatorian of my class and everyone said I was wasting my brains if I went into phys. ed., but I thought if I could play my whole life away, why not,” she laughed. “The coaching just naturally evolved.”

Although now retired from teaching, Palmer continues to lead the Lady Panthers’ volleyball team. For many seasons, her softball teams were amongst the strongest in the county as well, as Palmer compiled a career record of 474-202 as coach of the program. Upon her retirement, Panama’s softball field was re-named in her honor.

“Softball was my favorite sport,” she said. “But I don’t miss the Western New York springs. There is no rhyme or reason to the schedule. It’s tough to keep that schedule when you’re retired.”

Many players who played sports under Palmer at Panama have gone on to successful careers. Perhaps the most well-known alum of Palmer’s program is Jolene Nagel, who is in her 12th season as head coach of the women’s volley ball team at Duke. Nagel has guided her teams to at least 20 wins in nine of the past 11 seasons and is a two time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. Palmer remains in close contact with her one-time student.

“We talk during the season quite often,” she said. “When we had our first loss last week, they had their first loss in the ACC. We go back and forth quite a bit.”

With decades of students coming through her teams, Palmer counts the ability to coach another generation of players as one of the favorite parts of the job.

“One of the coolest of things is I’ve been doing this so long that I have daughters of former players,” she said. “It’s fun to see how the personalities of the parents evolved in their children.”

With nearly a 1000 career victories as a coach, Palmer doesn’t count the wins. “I’ve never really dwelled on the wins,” she said, “the losses are what kill me.”

After two straight trips to the Class D sectional championship game, Palmer’s team has the ability to reach the finals again this season as part of an extremely stacked classification in section 6.

“This year is easier than last year because we’ve dealt with a little more adversity so the kids are enjoying the season a little more; there’s not the pressure of winning every match in there,“ she said. “The reality is it’s going to be so hard to get in the finals that we have to keep things in perspective.”

One of the more impressive facts of Palmer’s coaching tenure is that her teams have found such a high level on the fields and courts despite Panama being the sixth smallest school in Section 6.

“It’s a real tribute to our girls that they’ve been able to do so well,” she added. “My feeling has always been that players win and coaches lose. These girls have certainly proven to be winners.”

Palmer says she plans on coaching the schools volleyball program for another season beyond this one. Nearly into a fourth decade of coaching, the love of working with student athletes remains as much today as it was when took her first coaching job.

“You don’t realize the time that goes into it if you enjoy it,” she said. “I have a greater appreciation for the time that coaching takes now that I’m retired. You have to love it to stay in it; there’s no question about that.”

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