Every day before practice this postseason, the players on the Sweet Home basketball team paused in the locker room to look at a picture of their coach, Paul Schintzius, and his teammates celebrating the Panthers' sectional title in 1984.
That team went on to win the program's only state championship. This year's team is two wins away.
"He pulled out that picture and started reminiscing how when he was in high school his best friends were the ones who were on the state championship team, and how they're like brothers now," said senior Daniel Joseph. "He tells us, 'You can pay the price now to live the rest of your life as champions.' They made that sacrifice when they were younger, and now we can make it."
At the start of the season, talented teams at Niagara Falls and Lackawanna were expected to make a run at the final four, but along for the trip down the Thruway to Glens Falls this weekend is Sweet Home. The Panthers, who cut down the nets at Buffalo State after their regional win because Schintzius' '84 squad did, will play Jericho of Long Island in the state semifinals at 10:45 a.m. Saturday.
Schintzius, in his seventh year coaching Sweet Home, says of his 1984 team, "The talent was overflowing at the seams." The squad featured Bryan Randall (Dartmouth) and Jerry Kopydlowski (North Carolina-Charlotte, Canisius), two in a steady stream of Division I players. Jim Kwitchoff played Division I football at Boston College, while Schintzius played basketball at the University at Buffalo. (Randall, Schintzius' best friend on the team, committed suicide in Florida in 2003.)
Those years also produced a great class of coaches in Schintzius, Pat Cauley (Hamburg) and John Kudla (City Honors) while Kwitchoff and fellow Sweet Home alum Reggie Witherspoon now head up UB's program a few half-court heaves from Sweet Home.
"The similarity between the teams is the chemistry," said Schintzius. "The close-knit bonds and the friendships that have developed. Our team did everything together and it's the same with this team: black, white -- it doesn't matter. It's truly a great mix."
"We're a big family," said Joseph.
The most talented player on this year's Sweet Home team isn't even able to play. Expectations for the Panthers sank when Terrell Rankin, the team's leading scorer and a fourth-team All-Western New York pick as a sophomore, was lost for the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Panthers' first game.
"When Terrell went down, Coach embraced us more and became more of a father than a coach," said Joseph. "He said that no matter what happened, if we'd follow what he was teaching, we were going to be successful."
Schintzius convinced the team their success would start on the defensive end, which wasn't easy early on.
"When we started with two-hour conditioning sessions, and defensive drills, and they were all looking at me funny saying, 'This guy's nuts,' " said Schintzius. "But they stuck with it. They stayed true to it. Now they can't wait for the most intense defensive drills."
Senior Quentin Hudson, the quarterback of the football team and an excellent baseball player, has stepped up as a tremendous leader and gotten big baskets when they've needed them. The front line of senior Joseph and junior Glenroy Carr gives them muscle inside while Earl Jackson and sub Ali Ramadan are very active on defense and rebounding. Starting senior guard Brett Vroman and junior reserves Eric Schnirel and Steven Roberts have hit very timely three-pointers while taking some of the ballhandling heat off of Hudson.
The Panthers persevered without Rankin all season and they also survived several grueling playoff wins. They beat Wilson Magnet, 53-51, in the regionals despite Joseph (four fouls) and Stevens (sprained knee) on the bench for most of the second half. Sweet Home has allowed an average of 49.4 points against in the playoffs.
"Here's the thing that I love," said Schintzius. "People come up and say you've got to work on free throws, you're turning the ball over. But the real thing to me is persevering through all that. The defense makes sure that in the fourth quarter we'll have a chance to win. They've bought into it."
"There were games where we needed a stop, and and we got it," said Joseph. "We know what we have to do on the defensive end. We're so close, why give up now? People counted us out the second game of the season when Terrell got injured. Why not prove them wrong?"