Remembering Panther Pride

Remembering Panther Pride

Submitted photo
Lewistown players Krista Gingrich (from left), Maggie Johnston and Heather McElwain hoist the championship trophy.

LEWISTOWN — A quarter of a century has passed since the Lewistown Area High School girls basketball team captured the hearts of a community by winning back-to-back PIAA Championships.

During the 1996-97 season, the Panthers won their first-ever state title. They followed that up with a sequel during the 1997-98 campaign that was probably just as memorable and eventful than the original to their rabid fan base. No one could deny the passion the Panthers exemplified during their journey that inspired an entire community.

“Really, it’s like a dream now when I think back to those wonderful years,” said former Lewistown head coach Kevin Kodish, who coached at Lewistown for 27 seasons and two years at Mifflin County High School. After a brief retirement, he returned to coach at Juniata High School for five seasons before retiring for good. Today, Kodish is completing his third team as a Mifflin County commissioner and plans to seek re-election.

“Two years, two state titles and a 63-1 overall record –wow!” Kodish said. “Also, we were ranked throughout the 1997-98 season in the USA Today Top 25 girls basketball poll.

“I believe our final ranking was 17,” he added. “Considering that there are nearly 27,000 girls high school basketball teams in the country, being number 17 is staggering.”

Kodish said the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons were magical and full of hard work and thrilling games yet most of all, fun, for the players and coaches involved.

“The runs to the state championships were pressure-filled for the girls, but their dedication to the fundamentals of the game, their strong desire for excellence and their unwavering commitment to each other, their school and their community carried them to the top of the mountain for two consecutive seasons,” Kodish said.

They became Hollywood celebrities for their achievements on the court. Yet, they never became too starry-eyed to remember their fans. And, despite players like Krista Gingrich, Maggie Johnston and the late Jenna Feathers becoming household names, they never let winning go to their heads.

They were confident, but never cocky. They were a team from the starters to the last person on the bench.

“What was especially nice about both of our playoff runs was that every player contributed in their own way,” Kodish said. “Everyone knew their role and pulled together for the good of the team.”

Undefeated Feat of 1996-97

Looking back at 32-0, the season couldn’t have been any sweeter for that 1996-97 Lewistown team. The Panthers rolled through a perfect regular season, winning the Mountain League title, despite all-star guard Krista Gingrich missing the first 13 games of the season due to injury.

Lewistown trailed Tyrone by 9 points heading into the fourth period in the District 6 Class AAA final but rallied to win by 10 points. In the Western final, the Panthers trailed Blackhawk 53-47 going into the last quarter, but held the Cougars scoreless for six minutes to rally for another double-digit victory. Lewistown captured its first PIAA crown with a 53-45 win over North Schuylkill as Gingrich poured in a game-high 22 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter.

Sweet Repeat in 1997-98

Returning most of the lineup from the previous season, the 1997-98 Panthers capped a 31-1 campaign with a second consecutive PIAA title. Lewistown fell to Bishop Guilfoyle early in the season, but the Panthers rebounded by winning their remaining games. In the PIAA final, the Panthers beat Berwick 71-57 to capture the coveted gold ball.

‘Tremendous’ Community Support

“The thing I will remember most is the sheer joy on the faces of the players when they accomplished their ultimate mission each season,” Kodish said. “I will never forget the tremendous support our teams received from the Mifflin County community.

“When we left town for a playoff game, there were always signs and balloons along the route out of the area,” he added. “When we left Lewistown for the state title games, people had bedsheets hanging from the second floors of their homes, saying things like, ‘Go Lady Panthers! Bring Home the Gold!’ Simply put, the Lady Panther fans were second to none. No matter the location, our fans packed the gym and made our girls feel at home.”

Opposing teams often felt as a disadvantage even when the games were played on a neutral court.

“One time, we were playing a state playoff game at Altoona, and the opposing coach told me that he believed it wasn’t fair that we got to play a game ’15 to 20 minutes from our school,’” Kodish recalled. “I laughed and told him we were 90 minutes away, and our fans travel as far as necessary. He was stunned that he was mistaken on where our school was located.”

After those seasons ended, many area organizations passed proclamations honoring the team. The girls were also treated to free meals, and area businesses made t-shirts commemorating the titles, and people lined up to get autographs. They were truly stars.

“I can remember hearing on the radio that “The Lady Panthers will be at Walmart from 11 to 2 today signing autographs. Pick up a championship t-shirt and fill it with autographs,” Kodish said.

Cherished Memories

When contacted for this story, Gingrich replied, “How can it be 25 years?!”

Time has flown by for many Panther players. After playing at Division I Duke University, Gingrich remained in the Durham area and working as the senior physician assistant in pediatric orthopedics at Duke University Medical Center. She is married with two young boys.

“The entire community came together to encourage and support us on our journey,” Gingrich recalled. “In that sense, everyone shared in the accomplishment and had their own piece of the championship.

“People were proud to represent Lewistown and Mifflin County,” she added. “I also know that the championship was the culmination of many years of hard work and dedication from many people. It also inspired the next generation to follow in our footsteps.”

While hoisting the trophies were magical, Gingrich remembered when exiting the game with Johnston. “Kevin took Maggie and I out at the end together,” Gingrich said. “I waved to our crowd one last time and hugged Maggie on the sideline as we stepped off the court.”

Johnston agreed, appreciating the achievements more as she grew older. “Such great memories!” she said. “I don’t think I realized at the time how special that team was. What I remember most is the fun times we had together and the way the community came together to support us.”

Johnston now lives in the Tampa Bay area and works in finance. Despite being far away from Mifflin County, she’ll always be a proud Panther.

“I’m just very proud,” Johnston said. “We worked so hard for many years and achieved our goals.”

For Sweeta Hutchinson, the moments with teammates were also special, including bus rides and team meals at the Gingrichs.

“They were definitely really special,” said Hutchinson, who lives in Washington DC with her daughter and works for an athletic apparel company. “I’m still good friends with a lot of the players. I have a lot of memories from playing on the team.”

Working in sports industry and with college athletes, winning a state crown still comes up in conversation, Hutchinson said. “I don’t think we saw ourselves invincible. We would count each game, each win, down from 32. We were not trying to be cocky. It was more confidence. We just stuck to our rituals and traditions.”

And then there were the little moments.

“Before every game Jenna would help me French braid my hair,” said Mackenzie Moser, of Feathers who passed away in 1999. Her memory lives on as the Jenna Feathers Award is given annually to the county’s top basketball player.

“It was really the connections that we had with each other,” Moser added. “Winning a state title was just icing on the cake. The friendships that we made along the way were priceless.”

Moser admits she doesn’t stay in touch with her former teammates as much as she’d like. It’s not easy as she is raising two teenage sons.

“We were definitely confident, and knew what we were capable of,” Moser said. “It was fun and things were light-hearted, but we knew when we could have a laugh and when it was time to get down to business.”

Those experiences helped to mold players into who they are today.

“Those times taught me some really important life lessons about being a good teammate and friend, the value of connecting with people and if you work hard, you can achieve anything,” Moser added. “Who would have thought that a small Pennsylvania town was capable of beating those big schools, but we did it.”

Tournament Trail Tales

And there were always plenty of remarkable tales along the tournament trail. While fans lined up overnight for tickets, Kodish and Lewistown Athletic Director Tona Williams were frantically making sure there were tickets for players’ families.

“I’ll never forget the night we won our first Western Final against Blackhawk,” Kodish said. “In the midst of the celebration, Tona mentioned we needed to do the state finals tickets for the parents of the players. I asked when, and she said, ‘Tonight!’

“Indeed, the turnaround time between the games was short, and public sale of tickets had to be set up,” he added. “Tona and her husband, Chris, came to my house that Wednesday night, and I think we were at it until about 3:30 a.m. figuring everything out.”

Remember, there was no automatic or online ticketing at that time.

“Tona had our packet of tickets, and they needed to be done for the families and then offered to the public,” Kodish explained. “We were well short of the amount of tickets we needed to satisfy our fans, so people went to our opponent’s school as well as the boys 4A schools, looking to purchase tickets to the session that featured our game.”

Never Forgetting Family

Despite all the success, there were sacrifices, especially by Kodish and his players and coaches. Through it all, their families were their biggest supporters.

“As a coach, it was important for me to have a loving and understanding family behind me,” said Kodish, who served as a head basketball coach for 34 years overall. “My mother, who was treasurer for the Panther Club for decades, was the number one Lady Panther fan in my mind, and my wonderful wife Shelly and daughters Katy and Brooke were always there supporting me every step of the way.

“It was so wonderful to have Shelly and my girls behind me,” he added. “Their personal sacrifices of family time were immense, and they deserve more thanks than I can give them.”

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