March 17, 2012
No Chance To Make A ‘‘Statement’’
But if you mention that to the first successful boys basketball coach at Panama, his response might be, ''At least they had a chance.''
The successful Panama teams more than 40 years ago coached by Jim McElrath couldn't even dream about playing for a state championship because there was no such thing until 1981.
Panama had never won a championship game until McElrath arrived for the 1957-58 season. The following season, the Panthers won the Section 6 Class C title and they did it again for the 1960-61, 1962-63 and 1964-65 seasons. It should also be mentioned that Panama lost the title game in 1961-62.
After winning those championships at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium, Panama was done. And so were the Section 6 Class A and B champions. There were no more games to play. No regionals and no state championship.
That stunned McElrath, who had played varsity basketball in Pennsylvania at Mercer High School.
''Coming from Pennsylvania, (neighboring) Ohio and Pennsy both had state championships,'' McElrath said. ''In my high school career, I reached the (state) final four two of the three years I played. When I came up here I couldn't believe that this state did not have a state championship.''
McElrath would have liked to have moved on with some of those successful Panama teams that won sectional titles.
''I always felt as a coach that my teams could have gone to Glen Falls, they were good enough,'' he said. ''Obviously some might have been better than the other; I would never say which one would have been better.''
But he added, ''I always felt we could have won (a state championship).''
Things were so different back then that coaches didn't know who else was out there.
''They did not do polls, so I didn't know about the other Class C teams in the state,'' McElrath said.
While McElrath was concerned about his team not getting to play for a state title, his players were oblivious to it.
''They didn't really know unless they read the papers about Pennsylvania or I would tell them things about what it's like to go on to a state championship,'' he said.
And McElrath's recalled his fellow coaches didn't seem concerned.
''To my knowledge I was the only one that lamented the fact that we couldn't go on,'' he said about the lack of a state championship. '' Many of the coaches I coached against were from New York and that's what they grew up with. I didn't grow up in that atmosphere, so they kind of accepted it.''
And McElrath finally did, too.
''That's why I always associated winning a sectional championship with a state title,'' he said. And the fans felt the same.
''It was an exciting time for the people in that little village of Panama,'' McElrath said.
After coaching Panama to four sectional titles in seven seasons, McElrath retired from coaching at the age of 29. He pursued a career in administration that was capped with 18 years as the principal at Jamestown High School.
''A lot of coaches will leave when the cupboard's bare,'' McElrath said. ''When I left, I left three starters and a sixth man and the next year under our new coach (Ron Schrecengost) they won the sectional championship again.''
McElrath also recalled before he applied for the position, Schrecengost asked, ''Are you sure you don't want to come back?''
Schrecengost was also the coach when the Panthers won the sectionals in 1971, which was the last time they captured the championship until this season.
That Panama basketball situation sounds like what the Panthers' football team went through in the early years of playoffs. In four out of five seasons in the early 1980s, Panama, coached by Jack Keeney, played in the ''championship'' game at then Rich Stadium. They won two and lost two, but even when they won, that was the end of the line. There were no state football playoffs until 1993.
''Then you knew when the end was,'' Keeney said about football in the early 1980s. ''The season was over with and you'd done everything you set out to do.''
And it was the same for Panama boys basketball 20 years earlier.
The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.