NAUGATUCK – There are 16 players on the roster, one head coach, three assistant coaches, a cheerleading coach, enough cheerleaders to fill up the baseline, and an entire town heading to the state tournament on Thursday.
The Tug Valley Panthers are more than just five players on the basketball court, there’s a school and an entire community involved. The most important part of any team is the atmosphere that surrounds it. The Tug Valley Panthers have an aura that would rival one created by Hollywood. From the piercing panther growl that signals game time to the support of the fans from the stands. A panther game is an experience.
The players cannot be overshadowed; a group of players have formed a bond that shines on the court. You can see it when Calvin Blankenship checks his peripheral and sends up a no look oop to Jeremy Dillon. You can see it in the way the Panthers pass the ball to where their teammate will be instead of where they are. The switching on defense, the backside help, and of course Johnathan Blankenship’s signature crowd pleasing “let’s make some noise,” move.
This season has been a special one, one that will only grow in people’s hearts as the years pass by.
The games always start with the introduction of the starting five. The Panthers make a tunnel and the starters set there like there is music in their ears waiting for their signal. Once their name is announced they show team pride and respect to the referees and opposing coaches. The showing of respect has bled over into the players’ lives outside of basketball.
“This mixture of kids is just a good group all around, the lessons they learn on the court are lessons they apply to their daily lives and it shows,” said Tug Valley Principal Dr. Johnny Branch.
“These are good students who are as focused on their academics as they are on their sport. The traits and principles they learn through basketball, like collaborations, respect, determination etc…, bleeds over into their school life. They are successful in many other areas scholastically,” finished Dr. Branch.
Dr. Branch is the character who can be seen running the baselines during the game. During the sectional and regional tournaments he was often seen wearing a cover on his head resembling an upside down basketball net. Dr. Branch’s presence shows his dedication to the team and program, the hat shows his immersment into the evolving enigma which is Panther basketball.
Throughout the season, the players have created some memorable moments. With each player having their own shining moment, not one can say they did it alone. That is the sign of a true basketball team.
The starting five form a squad comparable to a star studded cast in a war movie, their personalities shine through their skills on the court. Calvin Blankenship takes the roll of the strong silent leader, no talk, just action, and Blankenship has provided the action from dunks to 3-pointers all season. Dillon takes the roll of the talented rookie, an up and comer with nothing standing in his way to greatness. Tyler May steps in as the skill man, he is precise and deliberate in every move he makes on the court. Chandler Runyon takes the roll of enforcer; he likes to get physical and will stare you in the eye as the ball falls through the net. Johnathan Blankenship is of course the wild card man, his energy and spirit is the cherry on top that acts like the single fuse that sparks the Panther explosion.
Off the bench are Corbin Oliver, Garrett Brown and Colby Savage. Oliver is the speed, he twists and turns through defenses and is almost impossible to shadow. Oliver has hit big time shots this season to get the rest of the team fired up and on a roll. Brown has a shot as smooth as silk. After the starting five has developed a sizeable lead, in comes Brown to make shots and make the wound sting even harder. Savage is a monster in the making, his size is the first thing you notice, and then the aim of his turnaround sets you back in chair. Savage has been money in the bank down on the post and has been used strategically by Head Coach Ed May.
The Tug Valley High School Gymnasium has erupted in its time but none like the time Alex Carter nailed a 3-pointer late in the game against Sherman. Carter is a freshman, who doesn’t get the Kings share of minutes with the Panthers but during the final minutes in the opening round of the sectional tournament, Carter saw his opportunity and seized the day. The shot hit the net and both Carter and the fans hit the roof in excitement.
Coach May, does not fit the typical stereotype of normal coaches, he’s not throwing tantrums and kicking over chairs. While opposing coaches are screaming at their players to get in formation, Coach May is screaming for his players to recognize what’s coming up. Coach May has a luxury with his current team, despite the majority of his players being young. During the game, Coach May can focus more on evolving his game plan to fit the match-up at hand.
Coach May is still in his first year as the Panthers head coach after inheriting a team of young talent that made it to the first round of the state tournament last season. The goal is always to better than the year before and Coach May has instilled a fast paced offense that has left to majority of the competition in the dust.
The team can contribute a lot of their success to the young group of players that shows up on game day. With 10 sophomores on the team and five of them receiving big time minutes, this group is truly history in the making. The “Super Sophomores” leave a sizzling trail of destruction on any court they step on. Dillon, Johnathan Blankenship, Tyler May, Brown, and Savage may be younger than most of the players they face but when they hit the court, they play like a team that has been together for four years.
The Panthers will be heading their thirteenth state tournament appearance since the official record books became a thing back in 1987. It’s hard to put into words what that signifies for a program as prestigious and deeply rooted as Tug Valley really means.
When Dillon stands at the front court, with the ball, surveying the odds and chances, waiting for the right moment for the Panthers plan to come together, we should all realize that there has been a completely different group of individuals in the same spot before; people with their own lives, emotions, and passions. People who cheered from the stands and then bench. People who won, people who lost, people who made it all the way.
The Panthers have won three state championships since 1987. Maybe this team could be the fourth? Only time will tell, but the road starts Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center.
(William Plaster is the sports reporter for the Williamson Daily News, he can be reached at 304-235-4242 ext. 2274 or at [email protected] or on twitter @sidplaster)