They are champions in different classifications, but Section VI's best girls basketball teams have something in common.
They didn't back away from any challengers during the season as tough schedules prepared them for crowning moments this past week.
Their mettle will be put to the test again Saturday, as the champs take on Section V counterparts in the Far West Regionals at Buffalo State Sports Arena. The winners will march to the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association semifinals during St. Patrick's Day weekend at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
First-time NYSPHSAA tournament participant Amherst begins the five-game slate at 11 a.m. against unbeaten Pittsford Mendon. Clarence, in regionals for the first time since 1983, faces private-school Mercy in Class AA at 1 p.m.
Panama (18-5) looks to reach its third straight Class D final four when it takes on Batavia Notre Dame (19-6) at 3 p.m. Frewsburg (21-3) faces South Seneca (24-1) at 5 p.m. in Class C, while Fredonia (19-6) closes the card with a 7 p.m. Class B tilt against Mynderse (20-3).
"I think certainly we have a good group of schools that have played pretty tough schedules," said Section VI chairman Chris Durr. "Almost all the finals and overall finals were competitive games. They certainly deserve to be there."
Amherst and Fredonia earned their way to regionals by negotiating their way through the tough draws.
Amherst's last three wins have come against teams that won a combined 59 games. The Tigers ended the season of defending Class A champion Lake Shore, which entered the game 20-1. They followed that by taking out an Olean team with 19 wins. Wednesday's triumph over four-time A-1 champion and league rival Williamsville South secured Amherst's spot as it's trapping defense, quickness and trust in each other have all been key to this postseason run.
That said, the Tigers (20-4) are the underdog heading into Saturday considering Pittsford Mendon (24-0) is ranked first in the state and has won half of its games by holding opponents to 40 or fewer points.
"From what I've seen they're well-disciplined," Amherst coach Mike Chatelle said. "They look to move the ball and get it inside when they can. … Defensively they like to overplay and get into passing lanes.
"We're going to have to hopefully use some of our quickness on them and move the ball."
Quickness swung Wednesday's final in Amherst's favor as it made 20 steals to fuel its transition game.
While the Tigers traveled a tough road, so too did Fredonia. It went 6-5 versus teams that at least made it to their respective postseason tournament semifinals, with Bishop Ludden winning the Section III Class B title.
That prepared a Hillbillies team with four seniors – including Cybart twins Hannah and Caitlin – well for sectionals. They won as a No. 6 seed – beating a Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seed. The latter victory came against Wilson, a league champion and perennial contender, in the overall Class B final.
"It's a very difficult journey to get to Far West Regionals," said Fredonia coach Carol Zirkle, whose team last made it to regionals in 2004. "This group of girls has worked hard the last three to four years. … I feel like the last three games of the regular season when we played Chautauqua Lake, Allegany-Limestone and Franklinville (all wins over teams that reached sectional finals), that's when we really started to play well, specifically the Franklinville game because we played tremendous defense and we've stepped it up on offense."
Different players have been stepping it up offensively for Clarence during its title run. In the quarterfinal win over Orchard Park, Lauren Cullinan had 17 points to lead the Red Devils. In the semifinals, Ali DiGulio drained six three-pointers en route to a game-high 19 points in the triumph over Jamestown. In Wednesday's final against Frontier, Carly Reynolds led the offense with 15 in a 34-31 win.
Reynolds, Cullinan and Ella Rose Eckert each average around 13 points per game for Clarence (21-2), whose only losses came against Frontier and Amherst.
Mercy (21-1) rallied from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Bishop Kearney in the Section V final in overtime.
"They're going to be tough," Red Devils coach Erin Booker said of Mercy. "They are every year."
Panama managed to fly below the radar most of the season even though the Panthers were coming off back-to-back state final four appearances – including last year's tough 62-60 defeat in the Class D final to old friend Heuvelton of Section X.
They have pushed their way into the spotlight again after taking out the top two seeds in Ellicottville and Franklinville. Panama has won 11 of its last 12 games with the lone defeat coming against eventual Class C champion Frewsburg, 47-40.
Three players average double figures for the Panthers, led by freshman captain and third-year starter Natalie Angeletti (15.2 ppg.), sophomore captain and third-year starter Madalyn Bowen (12.3) and senior captain and third-year starter Nicole Johnson (11.4). Bowen scored 23 points in the 79-68 win over Franklinville in last week's sectional final.
Frewsburg lost two of its first three games to open the season (close losses to Olean and Ellicottville), but has pretty much rolled everyone else since – including Monsignor Martin Class A semifinalist St. Mary's. The Bears' closest games in that stretch – a pair of three-point wins more than two months apart. One of those, though, was Tuesday night's 53-50 triumph over Chautauqua Lake won on buzzer-beating three-pointer from Gabby Iuculano.
Section VI teams have become tougher outs the past two years in regionals against Section V foes. Section VI has won six of the 10 games – including four of five two years ago when the event was at Buffalo State. Section V still leads the all-time series in regional-round play with a 100-57 record.
Far West Regional schedule
Saturday at Buffalo State Sports Arena
Class A: Amherst vs. Pittsford Mendon, 11 a.m.
Class AA: Clarence vs. Our Lady of Mercy, 1 p.m.
Class D: Panama vs. Batavia Notre Dame, 3 p.m.
Class C: Frewsburg vs. South Seneca, 5 p.m.
Class B: Fredonia vs. Mynderse, 7 p.m.