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Panama, Fredonia head to Troy in search of girls basketball state titles

Panama's girls basketball team loves the championship-tournament sendoff that has become a recent winter tradition.

The giant community pep rally includes a parade through the school in front of student peers and faculty along with a fire-truck escort out to the town line.

Fun memories for sure to help make the six-plus hour road trip to Troy seem just a bit shorter.

Think the sendoff is pretty exciting?

The triumphant welcome home from the Panama faithful is even better.

The school's girls volleyball team discovered that first hand when it secured the program's first state title four months ago. It just so happens there are seven players from that team trying to help basketball earn the champion's homecoming for the first time.

The Panthers are back in the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association final four for the third year in a row.

Section VI Class D champion Panama (19-5) returns to action at Hudson Valley Community College at 10:45 a.m. Saturday when it faces unbeaten state No. 1 South Kortright (22-0) of Section IV. The winner advances to the final at 10 a.m. Sunday against either two-time defending champion X-Heuvelton or VII-Moriah.

"We've had an 'upset the world' mindset from the outset," said Panthers coach Jeff Angeletti, who returned three starters but graduated two off last year's team that dropped a 62-60 decision to Heuvelton in the final. "Throw us to the wolves and we'll come back leading the pack. That was kind of our mantra all year."

Fredonia also is making the trip to the longtime home of the girls basketball final four. The Hillbillies face Section I champion Irvington (23-1) at 11:45 a.m. Friday with the winner advancing to Saturday afternoon's final against either IV-Seton Catholic of VII-Beekmantown.

Panama seems like an underdog heading into its semifinal. Perhaps the Panthers have their foe right where they want them considering they have been underdogs all season despite their returning-winning experience.

Panama has three third-year starters – all underclassmen – in the fold. While it did take a bit for them and the new additions to starting lineup to play a full, solid four-quarter game – the Panthers served notice they still are very good and would be a handful during a January win at Hamburg. A day after a night home game, Panama woke up early, made the long bus ride to Erie County and returned home with a 59-42 over the eventual Class A-1 runner-up.

That triumph is part of the team's run of 12 wins over its last 13 games. The Panthers are confident in their abilities and apparently have made believers of others. After not being ranked in the state poll heading into last weekend's Far West Regionals – they head to Troy No. 3 in the state poll.

"When you get to this level, even getting to the sectional finals you're getting to the elite teams," Angeletti said. "We have a lot of depth we think will help us in the long run."

And championship experience, too, as several players helped the school's volleyball program win a state title in the fall. That includes top scorers Natalie Angeletti (15.1 ppg) and Madalyn Bowen (12.5). Angeletti also leads the Panthers with 11.9 rebounds per game. Tara Sweeney, another volleyball player, averages 5.0 points as she moved from sixth man to a starting role.

"Winning is in their DNA right now," coach Angeletti said. "Our community is definitely behind us. Our girls know what we're capable of."

So too do Fredonia's. The Hillbillies (20-6) have hit their stride at the most important time of the season.

They improved to 7-5 against teams that made it to at least their respective sectional semifinal when it defeated Section V champion Mynderse in last week's state quarterfinal.

Coach Carol Zirkle asked other area coaches who have taken their team to the final four for suggestions following that triumph.

The most popular one:

"Enjoy the experience. Make sure you stay relaxed and then get down and take care of the business," Zirkle said. "But they said treasure the experience because it's just incredible.

"It's been amazing. The girls have had just an incredible run. They’ve been playing great defense, working well together and their team chemistry is the reason we've been so successful."

The Hillbillies received contributions from many last Saturday to reach this game as top scorer Hannah Cybart was limited to five points due to foul trouble. That along with playing great defense once again will be vital for a successful weekend.

Fredonia also has to slow down an Irvington team that includes solid guards in Lindsay Halpin and Olivia Valdes. Halpin, who will play at SUNY Geneseo, is quick, can drive to the basket and shoot the three, according to Zirkle.

"They use defense a lot to generate their offense," Zirkle said. "We need to play with the intensity we've been playing with. We need to box out and take care of the ball, get out and run our offense."

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