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Panthers on the prowl

Coming off its best regular season in years, Hancock is poised to make some noise in the Class 1A West playoffs.

Coming off its best regular season in years, Hancock is poised to make some noise in the Class 1A West playoffs.

February 26, 2002|By DAN SPEARS

- Coming off its best regular season in years, Hancock is poised to make some noise in the Class 1A West playoffs.

HANCOCK - Before a high school basketball season begins, coaches ask their players to set goals.

For the best programs, nothing short of a state or league championship will be acceptable. For the up-and-comers, an above average showing can help build a program for the future.

And then there is Hancock.

"We knew we'd have a good team this season, and we all had faith," point guard Jeremy Newton said. "But anytime you're in Hancock and get a winning record, it's a good season."

If .500 turns some heads for the Panthers, the town chiropractor is currently in big business. Hancock enters tonight's Class 1A West quarterfinal at home against Westmar with a 16-6 record - the school's most wins since 1965 and a mark that's given whiplash to even the most optimistic players and fans.

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"I figured we'd be all right," swingman Chris Robair said. "But I don't think we planned on 16 games."

Coach Jeff Spielman is amazed, too, but he knew his team had the potential for a better-than-Hancock's-normal season.

"All the pieces just fit in the right place this time," said Spielman, who has been part of the Hancock school system for over 30 years, the last 17 as the boys basketball coach.

"We've had teams in the past with a good inside game but no guards," Spielman said. "Last year, for example, we had to run four guards. This time, it's one of those right combinations."

At Maryland's smallest public school, the chances of that happening are only slightly better than winning the lottery. With under 200 students, the Panthers are forced to play with the hand they're dealt - and they usually lose.

This time, though, a pair of aces and three trump cards have resulted in a full house.

"At the start of the season, people were asking, 'How'd you do last night?'" senior guard Chris Wills said. "Now, it's like we're the talk of the town. Nobody seems to be asking about anything else but us."

"People are coming to more games," Robair said. "Around here, they like to see people winning at anything."

At Christmas, that didn't seem realistic at Hancock - again. The Panthers were 4-4 on Jan. 10 after back-to-back-to-back beatings from archrivals Clear Spring, Berkeley Springs and Southern Fulton. Even with a 4-1 start, apparently, the reality had returned.

"We've had a past history," center Brandon Fling said. "We've had talent in the past and didn't produce. We've started to lose in the past and couldn't bounce back. The Clear Spring win was big for us."

The Panthers won in Blazers territory on Jan. 15, starting a string of nine wins in 10 games over the next month. In the process, they avenged their previous defeats to Berkeley Springs and Southern Fulton and beat Clear Spring again on its own floor.

"We beat Clear Spring down there," Wills said. "We knew going in that we had a chance and we wanted to make up for it. And beating Southern Fulton, you don't get to do that very often."

But like Spielman said, Hancock doesn't get a group like this very often, either. In talent or in mindset.

"They don't care who scores or gets all that," Spielman said. "It's been a great group to work with in that respect."

To a man, the Panthers mention a quote from NBA star Scottie Pippen during his days with Michael Jordan, a line about knowing your role and accepting your place on the team.

Everyone took it to heart, especially Newton.

The team's 5-foot-7 floor leader is the key to getting the high-scoring Wills and Fling untracked. Not only does he know his role, he knows everyone else's, too, giving a laundry list of each player's keys to a successful game. His is last.

"Mine?" he says. "I play defense and hit my free throws."

Wills has the Tri-State area high for points in a game this season (41 vs. Turkeyfoot, Pa.), but Fling is the team's leading scorer and Robair is the team's third option. Newton finds them all as the area's fourth-leading assist man. The bench - "like (reserve) Eli Martinez says, 'We just try not to mess it up for the starters,'" Spielman said - does anything and everything required.

It'll all mean nothing without at least one win in the playoffs. The Panthers have had a week off to think about that.

"We want to win so bad," Fling said. "If we play like we can, we'll win. But (tonight) is so important. We want people to know that this wasn't just because of our schedule or whatever they want to say. We know we've got something special up here."

"We took the schedule and tore it up," Spielman said. "We could have been 22-0 and now, it wouldn't matter. Sure, they think about Southern Garrett (in the semifinals) and maybe South High (in the region final) ... they want to be the ones who have gone a little bit farther than the ones before.

"Regardless, they've done something up here that no one's done in 36 years. And that can't be taken away."

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