PANA — For Pana girls basketball coach Jason Storm, a single play epitomizes the grit and talent of his basketball team.
During the Panthers' game against Staunton on Jan. 3, point guard Madison Ashcraft deflected a Bulldogs pass.
The ball was headed for the sidelines and without hesitating, Ashcraft saved the ball, went into the stands where her face collided with a metal railing.
"As you can see from the scratch on my nose, I bashed my nose but I was back in the game in a couple of minutes," Ashcraft said. "I had blood everywhere and I walked to the bench and said get me a band-aid. Let’s go. It didn’t phase me too much."
What the Panthers lack in height, they make up for in heart, which they'll need plenty of heading into the Class 2A Pana Regional this week.
"I knew were were going to be a team that played hard all the time," Storm said. "This is my fifth year here and we have never had any size so we have to play scrappy and get after it and our girls love playing that style.
"Everybody on the team is not afraid to sacrifice themselves. I’m sure everybody has scuff marks on their legs from diving."
Ashcraft saved that lose ball at Staunton and it landed in the hands of Pana senior Shania Schoonover, the team's leading scorer (16.6 points per game) and rebounder (7.0 rebounds per game).
"So I dove to save it and I did and I actually got the assist off of it," Ashcraft said. "Shania got it and she got the full court layup."
The Ashcraft-to-Schoonover connection has helped the Panthers improve this season to 19-9. They are seeded No. 2 among the Class 2A Tuscola Sectional teams behind No. 1 Teutopolis.
If Pana can win the regional title, it could mean another meeting with the Wooden Shoes, who ended the Panthers' season last year.
A tough path is nothing new for the Panthers. Their schedule was one of the toughest around with Class 2A No. 2-ranked Greenville (27-1) and Class 2A No. 9-ranked Hillsboro (24-5) in their own South Central Conference.
The non-conference games were not any easier and included Class 2A No. 8-ranked Teutopolis, Class 2A No. 6-ranked Sullivan and Class 2A Carlinville, Class 3A Effingham and Class 2A Piasa Southwestern, all of which received votes in the AP Top 10 poll.
"I’m really pleased with it, being 19-9, my expectations for the season were about 18 wins so, we can still pick up some more wins this season," Storm said. "Even though we lost of those challenging games I try to find the positives in them and stress that we can play with these good teams and I hope that carries ahead."
Schoonover is the face of the Pana offense and she recently reached an important milestone — 1,000 points.
"She gets her points quietly," Storm said. "There are games I look up and she’s at 20 points and I would have guessed she had eight.
"She does what we need her to do. She gets a lot of points off of offensive rebounds and she’s super fast and runs the floor and that’s how she quietly gets her points."
Schoonover has a particular career point total in mind to reach.
"I was very excited to reach 1,000 points but I’m out to beat my sister’s (Allie Schoonover) girls scoring record which is 1,250 points. That’s my goal," she said.
An aspect of Shania's game that could help her get there is her outside shooting.
"Shania's improved her mid-range shooting this year," Storm said. "She has taken more 15-foot shots this year than in the last two years combined. She has a lot of confidence in that shot but she still drives the basket."
Ashcraft has been passing to Schoonover since the days of 3-on-3 as children and their connection is undeniable.
"Shania's a great asset to our team and she knows a lot about basketball," Ashcraft said. "I know if she is cutting whether I can get her the ball or not. We read each other very well and it’s nice to have that girl on the team that you can look for as a point guard — getting that connection between teammates."
Schoonover and Ashcraft are joined by a third senior captain, Katelin Weideman, a defensive specialist with 28 deflections this season and that same Panthers' intensity.
"If you’ve seen that picture of Pete Rose diving for third base where he is four feet off the ground — Katelin went for a lose ball and she came across and it looked like that," Storm said. "I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and she said, 'I had to get the ball.' She loves the challenge."
Storm says the Panthers will need that drive in this year's postseason.
"The girls get after it and are so competitive when it is time to play and get ready to go and I’m hoping we take that next step this year," he said.
The Panthers begin their postseason by facing the winner of Monday's Meridian vs. Shelbyville game on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Pana.