Meghan Metzger didn't need fictional heroes, not when there was a real-life hero sitting in the stands at all her basketball games.
That's the way Metzger, a senior guard for Pioneer, felt about Janet Payne, the wife of her coach, Max Payne. Janet spent the past 9 1/2 years battling what started out as breast cancer. She lost her battle Jan. 12 at the age of 54.
"Fighting cancer for 9 1/2 years is a big deal, and that's why she's my hero," said Metzger, one of two seniors on the team. "Even when she lost her hair and had to walk with a cane, she still kept that beautiful smile on her face. No matter what. She was at every single game I can remember, if she wasn't in the hospital. She was pretty special."
Before the season started, the team got permission to sew the breast cancer "pink ribbon of hope" on the left shoulder of their home and away uniforms. In November, the Panthers dedicated their season to her. Before the team takes the court, instead of yelling "Panthers" in unison the players say "for the stripe."
Janet saw her last game Jan. 4; the opponent was Tonawanda. It was also the night of her and Max's 32nd wedding anniversary. The couple met while attending Arcade High School. The Paynes have a son, Brennan, who is at St. Bonaventure on a golf scholarship.
Janet had a special relationship with the girls on her husband's team. Some players said she treated them like the daughters she never had. Her pregame hugs became part of the team's warm-up routine. They came to her house during the holidays to help decorate. They visited her in the hospital. Her loss has been traumatic for them as many are dealing for the first time with the death of someone they knew.
"She was an inspiration for our whole team," senior guard Aleah Zimpfer said. "This is very difficult for all of us. We've really become a close team this year. Mrs. Payne gave us a purpose to come together and a purpose to win for her and for Mr. Payne. Even when she was sick, she got out there everyday trying to live her life."
Pioneer (12-2) hasn't played since facing Cheektowaga the night Janet died. Its next game is Friday at Alden and Max will be back on the bench. The players will be without their hero, but not the lessons she taught them.
Around the courts
How dangerous is Sweet Home? The Panthers beat Lancaster and came within 57-53 of handing No. 1 large school Jamestown its first loss. "We're just inconsistent now, but we're young. I hope we put it together come February," coach Matt LaRoach said.
*Freshmen have had plenty of impact this season. Casey Button of Niagara-Orleans League-leader Albion (5-0) is capable of a double-double against anyone. Fans at Kenmore East have been asking, "who's that No. 25?" It's Joelle Pollak, who is almost automatic from the free throw line. Point guard Kayla Golden of Lackawanna has shown savvy knowing when to drive or pass.
*Player to watch: Sam Eimers of Ripley. "She is by far the best basketball player I have seen in a long time," said Fredonia coach Carol Zirkle, who saw her against Sherman. "She does everything! The shots she made were incredible."