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02-24-06 The old Panther Gymnasium has left fond memories

By Gary R. Rasberry

  ROCKFORD -- Nothing lasts forever, the old adage goes.

Parkway cheerleaders and boys and girls basketball players take to the floor during a Thursday night pep rally in Panther Gymnasium. The last game to be played in the 30-year-old gym will take place tonight against Coldwater.<br></br>

  So is the case of Panther Gymnasium at Parkway High School. A new school is set to open next school year and the Panther basketball and volleyball teams will have a new gym to call home.

  Like most places, nostalgia kicks in when a place you've been to so many times is about to be no more.

  I guess I'm old enough, sorry to say, that I remember playing in Panther Gym during my high school days at Mendon-Union. For most of those years, the Pirates played the Panthers twice during the season, so once a year for sure, we'd be at the gym. Then at the end of the season, Mendon would pull into Rockford again as the old Class A/Division IV sectional was played in the gym.

  It wasn't like the other gyms in the area we played. The floor wasn't wood back then. It was a Tartan rubber floor that was all the rage when the gym -- and many other gyms around the area -- was built in the 1970s. Tartan Floors abounded, based on the principle that the gym could also be the cafeteria, meeting room and any other room you can think of. Fort Recovery had the floor for years, before finally getting wood. Until this season, the Elida Fieldhouse was Tartan, as was Lima Temple Christian and Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian, both favorite foes of the Pirates.  When I came in as a writer in 1993, the floor was the same. Only this time, I sat a little higher in the bleachers to watch the games.

  As 2000 neared, the sectional was moved to the larger Palace in Coldwater -- which had replaced the bandbox pit. A new coach named Don Vogt came in and worked to revive the program from its doldrums. That meant changing the look of Panther Gymnasium. The Tartan floor was covered over with a parquet floor and as the scenery changed, so did the fortunes. The Panthers won a sectional title for the first time in 20 years.

  After the glory years, the teams fell on hard times. This season, however, the retrun to excellence came back as the Panthers are in double digits in wins for the first time since that 2000-01 season. With a group of underclassmen returning next season, the chance to christen the new gym with a great season is in the cards.

  This year I didn't make it to Panther Gym to cover a game, but I went Thursday night to watch a community-wide pep rally for the team as they got ready to play the last-ever game in the Panther Gym against rival Coldwater tonight.

  Athletic director Lucus Minnich, who spent his high school days running all over as Petey Panther, Parkway's mascot, talked about how what was going to be torn down -- the wood, steel and concrete -- was physical, but what the fans had in spirit could be taken to the new gym. Later, a big bonfire burned out back.

  Even though I didn't go to Parkway and played in only five or so games at the gym, there are some memories that I started thinking about.

  In 1989, St. Henry, with sophomores Bob Hoying and Kevin Niekamp seeing playing time along with Terry Niekamp and Pat Droesch with Fran Guilbault patrolling on the sidelines, faced a Perry team with the slogan "Born to Run" across the back of their warmup jerseys.

  The slogan that night mean to run the clock out as the Commodores held the ball as much as possible. The Redskins won anyway 34-10. My teammates started rooting for Perry -- after all, St. Henry whipped us that year by a large margin -- and caught Fran looking up at us like we were crazy.

  Some of the people who I watched play for Mendon over the years or socialized with up at the pool hall or barber shop uptown now have their sons and daughters playing for Parkway.

  Man, have we gotten old.

  Now I will have to change my driving coordinates to find the new school, find a new place to sit -- hopefully the new gym will have a great press row -- and get used to where everything is in the new school.

  The parquet floor won't be at the new school, the cost to move it was more than just putting a new floor in, but maybe someone will be able to sneak in after school lets out for the year -- and before the old school is torn down by August -- and cut a piece of the floor out and donate it to the school to put on the wall, much like St. Henry did when its old gym was torn down.

  But please, don't do the same with the Tartan rubber floor.


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