By Ben Tarhan
When the Jamestown boys basketball team made it to the Far West regional final last year, senior Tommy Campion was the main catalyst. Campion was the team’s leading scorer and only senior.
Campion is gone this season, but most of the rest of the roster is returning, including the starting point guard, junior Zack Panebianco.
Last season, as a sophomore, Panebianco was arguably the Red Raiders’ second best player. He earned All-Western New York Honorable Mention and gained experience dishing out passes to Campion and capitalizing on scoring opportunities when Campion was double-teamed. This season, Panebianco is one of the best returning basketball players in Western New York.
“He wouldn’t turn the ball over, he made good decisions and he wasn’t afraid to shoot or score when the opportunity presented itself,” said head coach Ben Drake. “He always plays his best during the big games. He played his best basketball at the end of last year when we got to Buff State.”
Drake has known Panebianco since he was a little boy – Panebianco attended one of Drake’s basketball camps. Drake said it was evident from an early age he was going to be a good basketball player.
When Panebianco reached eighth grade, Drake placed him on the freshman team. As a freshman, Panebianco played with the JV team and played a few games with varsity at the end of the season.
Last year, as a sophomore, Panebianco took over the starting point guard role.
Playing with older and bigger players isn’t something that fazed Panebianco. He isn’t big – 5 feet, 10 inches according to Drake – but he plays strong, something both coach and player credited to the time he spends playing football for the Red Raiders.
“I’ve been playing with kids older than me since I was in kindergarten,” Panebianco said. “I’ve gotten used to that and now I am becoming one of the older guys that has to step up.”
Even though he is used to being one of the youngest and smallest players on the court, a leadership role isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. Last season, Drake put pressure on Panebianco to take control of the offense as the point guard.
“I gave him a lot of responsibility on the court and he came through and I think the other kids just kind of followed his lead,” Drake said.
Drake praised Panebianco for his work ethic over the summer. Panebianco was at every workout and came ready to improve himself every day, Drake said.
Outside of practice, Panebianco said he spent time at the local YMCA just playing and trying to get better.
Panebianco has only received interest from one college so far – he got a letter from the University of Rochester this summer – but he will likely see more interest if he continues the same high level of performance from last season.
What makes him a special player on the court are his floor vision and decision-making, according to Drake. Drake said Panebianco rarely gets rattled and almost always makes good decisions on the floor.
Ten of Drake’s 12 players spend the fall playing football. Drake and Panebianco said the biggest challenge transitioning from football to basketball is the different conditioning. Panebianco said his ball-handling skills diminished during football season. To help counter this, Drake got his players into the gym to shoot a few times a week during the football team’s playoff run.
Drake said he sees more benefits than problems with having a team of football players. He thinks his team will be able to thrive in many different kinds of games because of the team’s strength and the number of talented skill players he has on the court.
He expects Panebianco to continue his strong performance from the end of last season and be one of the best players in the region this year. Panebianco shares similar high expectations for himself and his team.
“I think we have a very high potential,” Panebianco said. “We can go as far as we want.”