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From the Archives: Taking a journey through the AHS Pantherettes’ historic 1966 basketball season; part five

By MICHAEL MURRAY
michael.murray@americustimesrecorder.com

Editor’s Note: Here at the Americus Times-Recorder (ATR), we’re very proud of our area’s rich history of sporting excellence.
Our readers will remember that we recently decided to take off on a journey down memory lane and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Americus High School (AHS) Pantherettes basketball team’s sweep of the state championship tournament, which left the AHS ladies at the top of the Georgia heap with an impressive 22-1 record on the season.
While researching the Lady Panthers’ epic performances during this epic season of 50 years ago, I have had several opportunities to speak with former team members, coaches, and a host of the team’s fans and supporters, who have helped add a great deal of depth to the series. Oftentimes, these interviews begin with a discussion of how much AHS’ athletes excelled at nearly every sport that year. Speaking with one of the team’s supporters several days ago, I was informed that, in addition to state championship victories in women’s basketball, football, and baseball, AHS’ golf team also had quite a season that year, earning yet another state championship trophy for the school.
At the rate that these athletes were winning accolades, the school would likely soon need a larger trophy case.
In our previous installments of this series, we’ve followed the Pantherettes’ journey up to the halfway point of the regular season, as the team spent the initial two months of the season rolling over a string of opponents on their way to 10 wins. Of course, in hindsight, we know that the Pantherettes would continue this onslaught of their region opponents as they continued to press forward.
When we left off, the Pantherettes had just dealt a 55-38 blow to their bitter rivals in Macon County and begun preparations for the next test of their skills against Mitchell County.
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In late January of 1966, the ATR was abuzz with world news of the war continuously raging in Vietnam, as well as the myriad anti-war protests that were steadily growing in the United States. In US news, the ATR was also reporting on the ever-growing Civil Rights movement that would eventually continue spreading to all corners of the country.
In local news, on Jan. 19, 1966, the ATR’s front page included an article detailing the arrest of a pair of local men accused of operating an illegal moonshine still. In local sports news, the City of Americus was busy congratulating Americus native, John Robert Bell, who had recently accepted a position as head football coach at East Tennessee State University after serving as an assistant football coach at Georgia Tech for six years.
According to the ATR’s Sports section from that time, the city was also busily preparing to host the annual College Freshman basketball championship, scheduled to be played between Auburn University and the University of Florida. According to a Jan. 29, 1966 article in the ATR, the Kiwanis Club-sponsored event also saw University of Georgia freshman basketball coach, Jimmy Melvin, an Americus native, return to his home town to coach the UGA team in the tournament on his old stomping grounds.
All the while, then-sports editor for the ATR, Clarence Graddick, dutifully reported on the Pantherettes’ ever-expanding string of successes.
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In a Jan. 24, 1966 article titled, “AHS Cagers Split with Mitchell Co.”, Graddick wrote, on the Pantherettes’ most recent victory, “Americus High’s Pantherettes claimed their eleventh victory of the year against no defeats over Mitchell County, 62-49, here Saturday night… Jeanne Posey and Deborah Mason were the top scoring guns for the Pantherettes as Posey led with 30 points, followed closely by Mason with 28. Jean Turpin, who played an outstanding floor game, had four points.”
“The Americus defensive line proved outstanding too, giving up only eight field goals in the first half,” Graddick continued. The Pantherettes led 19-13 at the end of the first quarter, 33-18 at the half, and 49-30 after three periods… Turpin had six rebounds to her credit and Sherrell Bailey, five.”
Following this substantial victory, the Pantherettes took a well-deserved week-long break before returning to the court on Feb. 1 to take on Schley County in a rematch of the team’s season opener.
Graddick provided details of the match-up in the following day’s edition of the ATR in an article titled, “Americus Captures Twin Bills from Schley County Teams.
“A week’s layoff must have been the right tonic for the Americus High boys’ basketball team as they compiled a convincing 77-38 win from the Schley County boys here Tuesday night after the Americus girls had rolled to their 12th straight win of the season in a low-scoring, 39-22 tilt with the Schley County girls.
“The undefeated Americus girls were led in scoring by Jeanne Posey and Deborah Mason with 14 points each. Melba Jones was the only Ellaville girl in double figures with 11 points.
“Although the scoring was low, the Americus girls were never in any real trouble and led 19-11 at halftime. The guards for the Pantherettes limited the Ellaville girls to only nine field goals during the game as Coach Melvin Kinslow used all of his available players. Sandra Belcher and Sherrell Bailey led the rebounding for the winners with nine and seven, respectively.”
Two days later, on Feb. 4, 1966, Graddick published an article, detailing an upcoming ceremony, scheduled to honor the AHS football team which had, a month prior, kicked off the school’s spree of state championship wins.
Modestly nestled next to this piece was another titled, “Americus Girls Seeded First in Sub-Region Play”. In the article, Graddick wrote, “The Pantherettes of Americus High have been seeded first in the girls’ division of the Region 1-A West basketball tournament which will get underway in the Central High gym in Thomasville on Feb. 16….”
“Thursday night will feature two girls’ games with Americus, who received a bye, playing the winners of the Brooks-Worth County game at seven o’clock,” the article continued before going on to say that number-two seeded Mitchell County would be facing number-three seed, Central, prior to the Pantherettes taking the court.
Further along in the article, Graddick wrote, “Coach Melvin Kinslow’s girls have a streak of 33 regular season games going and hope to continue the streak into the tournaments this year.”
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Before the beginning of this tournament, however, the Pantherettes had four more regular-season games to play. On Feb. 4, 1966, the AHS ladies went on to snag their 13th straight win of the ’66 season over Vienna.
Unfortunately, the microfilm on which the ATR article detailing the match-up was reproduced has since deteriorated, making the text unreadable. Because of this, details of this match-up are currently unavailable, but I believe that, given the Pantherettes’ record up until that point in the season, it is reasonable to assume that the team gave an exciting performance on the hardwood in that match that kept the team’s fans on the edges of their seats and helped solidify the team’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Georgia women’s basketball.
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Former Pantherette team member, Irene Walker (formerly Irene Manning) recently sat down with the Times-Recorder to discuss her role on the team during that epic season.
Walker told the ATR that she played for the Pantherettes all through her high school career. “I was only 15 years-old at that time,” she said. “I was a sophomore. I had made the team my freshman year and gotten to play a good bit… as much as I did my sophomore year. I got to play enough that I lettered my freshman year. Back then, that wasn’t something that everybody did. I lettered all four years. I was proud of that… In my senior year, I got a big blue blanket with an ‘A’ on it and my name on it. I still have my blanket. I enjoyed every minute I played.”
Asked how she would attribute the team’s unprecedented success that season, Walker answered, “All of the girls got along really well I don’t remember any of us having any problems, whatsoever. The forwards all practiced together and the guards all practiced together. We scrimmaged against each other… The first article in this [ATR Archive Series] said that there were six guards who were about equal. There were the starters and I was one of the other three. We just got along really well. There wasn’t any competition among us. I think we all just really liked each other.”
“We had some very athletic girls and Coach Kinslow, I believe even today, is an exceptional coach,” Walker continued. “We practiced every day after school. As a matter of fact, we probably started a little earlier in the season… before basketball season, because a lot of the boys’ basketball team members also played football. The girls didn’t have anything else, so we started practicing early and we practiced every day… Coach Kinslow is a very good coach; a very good man.”
On her specific role as a guard on the team, Walker said, “We had three guards on one end of the court and three forwards on the other end of the court. We never crossed the center line. When the guards played, they had two out front and one on the basket. When the [opposing team] brought the ball in, if it went to the left side, I’d shift to the left because I was on the basket. If it went to the right side, we shifted that way and the guard up front fell behind and caught the forward on that end. So that’s how we played… I had a little bit of height on just about everybody and I have long arms, so that helped.”
On how the way that the game is played has changed over the years, Walker discussed the transition from the team playing with the guards and forwards confined to their respective side of the court to all team members playing a full-court game. “I wondered, when the girls started playing full court… because the boys always played full court,” she said. “I said ‘How do those girls do that, running up and down the court.’ I thought, ‘Well, they’re much stronger than we were anyway.’ I said that to Sherrell Bailey’s mother one time. She turned to me and said,’ You could have done it. Without any problem, y’all could have done it.’”
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Be sure to stay with us next week as we continue to explore the Pantherettes’ epic 1966 basketball season, detailing the end of the team’s regular-season match-ups and the team’s preparations to enter the region playoffs. We will also continue to share excerpts from our series of interviews with former Pantherette players and coaches.