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Richard Sandy, who has lived in South Dayton since the mid-1950s, sat comfortably in a booth at the Jenny Lee Country Store with his fingers wrapped around a coffee cup.

The success of the local Pine Valley girls basketball team was a welcome topic to the Ford Motor Plant employee on a rainy night last week.

"The Pine Valley girls are as important to South Dayton as the Bills are to Buffalo," said Sandy, "except they don't lose as much. . . . You know the program builds on itself. They win because they want to play, and they play because they want to win."

It was a sentiment that could be found all over this village of 662 in Cattaraugus County.

Liz Ivett is a cashier at the South Dayton Supermarket, a gathering spot on Pine Street. She checks out food as well as the Lady Panthers.

"Every year the girls seem to do great," she said. "All the stores put signs up. We do and so does the post office and the (HSBC) bank and there's Christie's Clip & Curl. They'll put them on the glass doors so everybody can see them. Everyone has signs in their vehicles, 'Go Lady Panthers.' I think there's a big sense of pride."

There's a good reason the Pine Valley girls have won over the town. Pine Valley may be one of the section's smallest schools with an average of 60 students per grade, but on the basketball court the Panthers are giants.

Pine Valley has made seven trips to the New York State final four championship, winning five titles in Class D, including last season. The championship banners line the wall of the gymnasium, which is trimmed with enough of the school's purple and white to make Niagara University envious.

Westfield may be the defending Section VI Class C champions, but against Pine Valley this year the Wolverines were blown away, 81-32.

"The way they played -- that was the best performance I've coached against in 11 years," Westfield coach Rich Morrison said. "They were on their 'A' game. If they can (sustain) that, they won't lose a game all year. The game they play against us, I would rather have played (Catholic large school power) Mount Mercy, and that's the truth."

Pine Valley is off to a 6-0 start, which includes two tournament wins and an eight-point victory over Fredonia, a final four team in the Section VI Class B tournament last year.

Morrison knew Pine Valley was talented this season because he coached three of its starters -- sisters Kourtney Troutman, Justina Troutman and Bryelle Cortright -- on Swish, a summer AAU team. Morrison said there's a "definite mystique" that contributes to the success of the program, and that some teams take the floor against Pine Valley convinced they don't have a chance.

"We have the attitude that we're going to win no matter what," said Kourtney Troutman, the team's undeniable leader, who surpassed 1,000 career points in the season opener. "We got that from our coach Mr. (Tim) Nobles, because he's always like, 'Work hard, and if we work as a team, good things are going to happen.' "

Troutman is one of eight Lady Panthers who return from last season's team that finished 24-3. Nobles was named the state's Class D Coach of the Year while Troutman was the Player of the Year.

While its winning attitude plays a big role, so does Pine Valley's relentless full-court press. The Lady Panthers start each game in the press, feeding off the points from turnovers. Pine Valley may lack size, but it's hard to post up a team when you can't get the ball over half-court. Like last season, Pine Valley keeps players fresh by using its entire bench, sometimes subbing all five at a time.

Nobles is in his 24th season behind the bench after taking over from the program's founder, Jerry Skurcenski. "We teach them in intramurals, there's one word we don't want to hear and that's, 'can't,' " Nobles said. "I give them that speech every year, but I start them young. What I see this year with these girls is extreme confidence."

Pine Valley has had a 20-win season in 11 of the past 13 years. Pine Valley holds three spots among Western New York's career scoring leaders: Nikki Smith is ranked No. 5 (1,935 points), Harmonee Williams is 10th (1,805) and Pam Crowell is 17th (1,617).

"Whenever I think about playing basketball for Pine Valley it give me goose bumps," senior forward Keri Johnson said. "We know it takes a lot of dedication to be on this team. We know that in past years we've done good, so you have to set your goals high. Last year and this year have been pretty special because we're all good friends. I think of all of them as my sisters."


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