The Post-Journal

Recalling Panama’s ‘Rich’ Tradition

Panama is celebrating 68 years of high school football this weekend – 18 years of six-man football that began in 1940 and then 11-man football since. In those 68 years of Panthers football, there have been some very successful teams, but there was a group in the early 1980’s that might be forgotten by many.

We are all concerned with state championship football since the state playoffs began in 1993. But the first post-season football in Section 6 involved qualifying for a “championship game” at then Rich Stadium. It all started in 1979 and the games were more like bowls with the Division 9 and 10 champions playing and the Division 7 and 8 winners squaring off and so on.

In those early years, one of the schools, including Jamestown, that called Rich Stadium its second home was Panama.

The Panthers made four trips in five seasons to the stadium. They won the first two game over Ellicottville in 1980 and West Valley in 1981 and lost the next two to Little Valley in 1982 and Ellicottville in 1984. But when the Panthers won or lost those games at Rich Stadium that was it. Football was done.

And Jack Keeney, who coached the Panama football for 33 years, remembers that well.

“Then you knew when the end was,” he said about football in the early 80’s. “The season was over with and you’d done everything you’d set out to do.”

But did those players ever wish there was more football to play?

“Not as much then, not as much right after the game,” Keeney said, “Maybe a few years later when the regional play came in and the state finals came in, then you heard the claims of ‘Gee, if we had the chance we would have been there.””

How does Keeney think those Panthers teams that stopped at Rich Stadium would have done if they were allowed to move on to the state playoffs?

“You don’t know, but that team that played in the fall of ’81 that beat Ellicottville was apretty darn good team,” Keeney said. “As a matter of fact, Pat Catanese, the running back from that team, still holds the Section 6 playoff record for the longest punt return (90 yards). That was just a great team. How far could they have gone? I guess we’ll never know.”

And why was Panama football so successful in the early 1980’s?

“We just had a good group of kids that came through.” Keeney said. “Our parents were very generous, financially and also by heredity. They gave us some good genes.”

Those four Panama teams that played at Rich Stadium had perfect 5-0 Division 9 seasons. But they never finished undefeated because they usually suffered a non-league loss to a larger school.

“Being a D school, about the only place you can go to play is up, ” said Keeney about scheduling non-league games and he never avoided having his teams do that. “I don’t think anybody’s who’s successful shies away from having that non-league competition. Good teams win because they play good teams.”

And he thinks more teams should do that now.

“There are bigger lessons to learn, even more so now with teams that advance past sectionals to regionals to (state) semifinals to states,” he said. “They may not be ready for that level of competition because of the league competition they play.”

So which Panama teams were the best?

“I’m sure that’s going to be a very big topic Friday night and Saturday,” Keeney said, referring to this weekend’s reunion of past players. “The group that is coming back from the ‘60’s which was extremely successful, is going to argue with those people from the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s and back and forth to find out where the best teams were. You know how that is. You can’t pick one over the other. It’s all in a different time.”

But none had the “Rich” tradition of the Panthers of the early 1980s.

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