The Post-Journal

Panther Power

One of the most successful college football teams of the last decade goes by the nickname of Panthers. I am referring to the University of Pittsburgh panthers who had nothing but success since the early 1970s. But on the Western New York high school football scene there is also a team nicknamed Panthers that has had nothing but success recently. Those Panthers are from Panama Central School.

This season Panama wrapped up its third straight Division 9 title to earn a third straight trip to the Section 6 Football Playoffs at Rich Stadium. As far as I can determine, Panama is the first team to represent its division for three straight years at Rich Stadium since the playoffs were established in 1979.

Springville has done it, but an asterisk goes with their accomplishment which was made more difficult. Springville made it to Rich Stadium in 1979 and 1980 as the Division 6 champions and last year it moved up to Division 5 and won again.

If Jamestown wins today, it will make its third appearance and second straight as Division 1 champion. But the first year the Red Raiders played at Rich Stadium was in 1979 as a wild card team before the playoff system was realigned. Clarence could also be headed to Rich Stadium for the third time as a division champion, but in different divisions.

But from 1980-82, Panama has begun calling Rich Stadium its second home as it has created a Division 9 dynasty. And the Panthers don’t fool around when it comes to winning the division title. Panama’s record so far this year is 7-0, last year it was 6-2 and the year before it was 6-2-1. But in division play the Panthers were 5-0 each season. Their Division 9 winning streak is now 16 games dating back to October. 19, 1979.

The season of 1979 was a rough one for the Panthers as they were 2-3 in Division 9 and 2-6 overall. Coming 1980, Head Coach Jack Keeney was quoted in a preseason preview, ‘We don’t have the experience to be termed the ‘team to beat’ in Division 9 this season.’ But he did admit, “We could be a good competitive football team.”

The Panthers were quite competitive as they had the first of their undefeated division seasons. Keeney recalls he was not optimistic that year because, “We were playing mostly juniors. We were shaky in all positions.” But those juniors proved to be very good players.

Since Panama had won with junior oriented-team in 1980, Keeney knew he could expect good things in 1981. “We had all those kids coming back,” he recalls. “We were a solid football team.”

Among those players coming back were 20 lettermen including 11 starters and five all-conference selections. They gave the Panthers their second straight trip to Rich Stadium with another perfect 5-0 division season.

But the situation was different coming into the 1982 campaign. All those seniors from last year’s team graduated – 21 of them. Another player missing was a junior fullback who didn’t come out for the team this season. That meant the Panthers were missing 22 players and 19 of them were starters. So the Panthers fortunes were up in the air for 1982.

“We knew we had a decent team coming,” Keeney said “But losing 22 people, we didn’t know what to expect.”

The team has proved to be more than decent because it again went undefeated in division 9 play. And if the Panthers defeat of Cassadaga Valley today, they will have their first undefeated season since 1973.

Is it the trip to Rich Stadium that is the main motivator for Panama? Keeney thinks it helps, but he points out, “It wasn’t much of a motivational factor in 1980.” After a 2-6 season in 1979, he said, “They (his players) didn’t think they would be there (Rich Stadium).”

But then after being there in 1980, “They wanted to return.” And they did in 1981, Keeney points out. “We dress all of our sophomores for Rich Stadium.“ So in addition to the juniors on the varsity, the members of the junior varsity get a taste of what it is like to play in a big-time atmosphere.

And when Panama gets to Rich Stadium it wins. In 1980 the Panthers defeated Division 10 champion Ellicottville 21-12 and last season they downed West Valley 19-13. Keeney has no explanation why Panama has won every time it has played at Rich Stadium other than “We were the better team and were prepared well.”

But as mentioned above, Panama has not had an undefeated season since 1973. That is because the Panthers usually drop a game or two to a non-league team from a larger school. “The schedule has not favored us at the end of the year,” says Keeney.

For the past three seasons after wrapping up the Division 9 title, Panama has had to meet two teams from a larger division to finish out the schedule. Last season after clinching the division, Panama had to take on powerhouse Frewsburg which had won the Division 8 title. Both teams came into the game with 6-0 records but Frewsburg won 35-7.

Keeney says there might have been a bit of letdown after winning the division title, but the opportunity of playing Frewsburg’s excellent team made up for it. But after being beaten very badly, “We had a serious letdown.” Then Panama lost to Cassadaga Valley.

In other years, in addition to playing Division 8 teams in non-leaguers, Panama has played Sheffield, Pa. which is also a larger school. “It’s not intentional,” says Keeney of pitting his team against tough competition for non-league games, but he doesn’t mind it. Keeney is very happy to play that type of competition.

“I’ll take that type of ballgame.” He says. He added that Panama doesn’t schedule Division 10 teams for non- leaguers because with the playoffs, “You could play a Division 10 team twice.” And no football coach likes to play a team twice. Keeney explained that once you beat a team once, you have beaten them.

He also pointed out Panama’s opponent at Rich Stadium this season, Division 10 champion Little Valley, is not resting on its laurels either. Little Valley is playing a tough game at Eisenhower today.
It appears Panama has had the talent on the field to produce their recent success. But they have also had it on the sidelines with a coaching staff of Keeney, Mark Conroy, Jon Pearson and Ed Trisket. But it might be the first name that deserves most of the recent credit because this season Keeney became one of the few football coaches in Chautauqua County to win over 100 games at the same school.

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