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With no school team, Panther Valley swimmers win individual medals

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    Panther Valley’s Jacqui Kokinda swims the 100 butterfly during last year’s Schuylkill League championships. Kokinda is one of the PV swimmers competing independently this year. RON GOWER/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published January 09. 2020 12:10PM


There is no “I” in team, but if there is no team, then for six Panther Valley swimmers, there is an “I” and the letter stands for “ Independents.”

In last Saturday’s Schuylkill League Sprint Meet competition in Pottsville, PV’s Erika Zimmerman, Jacqui Kokinda, and Emily Newton all swam as independents and won medals in races that included 10 total schools.

No school pool

In 1972, an indoor pool was built in the Panther Valley High School, but due to a reorganization of athletic programs and high operational costs, it was closed for good in 2011. That marked the last year that the Panthers had a swimming team.

For about a decade in the early 2000s, the Panthers were a swimming powerhouse coached by Geri Vavra. In the current Panther Valley Middle School gym, a banner hangs with the names of several district and state medal winners from past swimming teams.

“The pool actually was closed for 19 years from 1981 to 2000 before it reopened,” said Vavra. “Then I was shocked to hear that it was to be closed for good in 2011. To this day, I believe it was a huge loss not only for the school, but also for the community.”

Making their mark

The Panthers’ athletic director, Kristin Black, a Panther swimmer herself back in 1996, has kept a program in place despite not having what constitutes as a PIAA approved team.

“We currently have six swimmers. Some train at the YMCA in North Schuylkill, and others are members of the YMCA Tamaqua Blue Wave,” explained Black. “We don’t have a stable roster to field an actual team, so the five girls and one boy compete as independents, but they still can qualify for league, district, and state competitions because their racing times are what counts.”

Black is technically their coach, but in her absence, parents of the swimmers can step down to the pool deck and “coach” their kids. Qualified swimming coaches train them at the respective YMCAs.

At last Saturday’s meet, Ericka Zimmerman won both the 100 meter and 200 meter freestyle events. Jacqui Kokinda won gold in the 50m butterfly and placed fifth in the 50m backstroke. Emily Newton captured silver medals in the 50m and 100m breast stroke events.

Three other PV swimmers compete in various competitions. They are freshman Mia Perilla, sophomore Chloe Diekman, and senior Caleb Knepper, who has eclipsed school records in long distance swimming events.


Results are worth it all

Terri Kokinda, mother of Jacqui, explained some of the conditions and restrictions placed upon the PV six.

“It’s not just about paperwork that has to be submitted to the PIAA,” she said. “It’s about not having a home pool to practice in and compete in. Our swimmers compete in pools at Tamaqua, Mahanoy Area, North Schuylkill, Blue Mountain and Pottsville.”

She added that the PV swimmers cannot participate in any relays because they are not a “team.” When they attend the meets, they can swim in what’s called exhibitions and only if there are available lanes during the various swim team competitions. Oftentimes, a Panther Valley swimmer swims alone, but his or her times still counts towards Schuylkill League and District 11 qualification.

The PV six were all members of the Panther Valley Piranhas when they were in elementary school, but when the pool closed, they had to find other sites to train and compete.

Kristie Zimmerman, Erika’s mother, said there are other complicated issues faced by her daughter and the other PV swimmers.

“We have no school bus to take them to practices and meets. As parents, we do a car pool, but the six day a week travels to and from events can be exhausting.

“It’s an 11-month commitment, but we do it because they love to swim and compete, and we are so very proud of their achievements.”

Last year as a freshman, Erika was the Schuylkill League and District 11 champion in the 100 and 500m freestyle. She placed 20th in the state competition. She has set her goal for this year to be a repeat champion and finish in the top 16 at the state meet. “Then I can race on TV,” Erika said about one of the bonuses of advancing past the preliminaries at the state meet

Brian Newton, father of Emily, said that his daughter has been swimming competitively since she was 8 years old. She trains in Tamaqua. He once considered moving his family there, but Emily likes to go to school at Panther Valley.

“She loves to be in the pool with the Tamaqua girls,” he said, “but she has her friends at Panther Valley, too.”

The six swimmers wear bathing caps with Panther Valley paw print logos to show where they come from, but Jacqui, Erika, and Emily all agree that not having an actual team is both sad, and disappointing.

“I hate not having a relay team,” said Erika. “We could be really good, especially in the medleys. And when we have to swim alone in the pool and race against the clock, that isn’t much fun.”

“It’s sad that we have no fans to come see us swim like the other sports do,” said Emily.

“My goal is to stay focused on what I do when I’m in the pool,” said Jacqui, who doesn’t let the “team” issue affect her performances.

The Panther Valley swimmers and their parents also mentioned that there’s no team bus to take the kids to practices and meets.

“Some of your best memories in high school come from the camaraderie when riding a team bus,” said Kristie Zimmerman.

For Panther Valley swimmers – team or no team – their individual achievements have made their school and their parents proud as Zimmerman, Kokinda and Newton have all once again qualified as independent entrants in the league and district meets.

No pool. No bus. No team. But that hasn’t prevented these Panther Valley student/athletes from doing what they do best — swim and win.




THREE-POINT QUEEN … In Panther Valley’s second game of the season, Megan Pascoe wrote her name into the program’s record books.

Pascoe hit seven three-pointers against Palmerton to set a new PV girls single-game record. The senior, who has 19 treys so far this season, finished the contest with 24 points.



SPEAKING OF THREES ... While Pascoe had an outstanding one-game performance from three-point range, two area boys have also displayed their consistency from beyond the arc.

Tamaqua’s Brayden Knoblauch and Marian’s Chris Ritsick are the only two boys to have made at least one three-pointer in each of their team’s games.

Knobaluch, who leads the area with 38 treys, has hit in all 12 games so far this season, while Ritsick has connected in the Colts’ nine contests.



GRAND STAGE ... Two area players have reached the coveted 1,000-point plateau this season.

Palmerton’s Justin Hosier hit the milestone on Dec. 23 in a win against Saucon Valley. Hosier, who also set a new Blue Bombers record for three-pointers made in a career, is now the 20th player (10 boys and 10 girls) in school history to reach four digits.

Tamaqua’s Knoblauch also joined the 1,000-point club on Dec. 30 in a game against Pottsville. He became the 27th Blue Raider (14 boys and 13 girls) all-time to reach the milestone. The 27 players are the second most for one school in the area. Marian has the most with 35.



CLOSE CALL ... The Jim Thorpe and Palmerton boys have both played a number of close games so far this season.

Both teams have played 11 games, with five of them being decided by five points or less.

The Olympians are 2-3 in those games, while the Bombers are 3-2.




CHAMPS ... Jim Thorpe’s Derek Hunter (285) placed first at the Jim Thorpe Christmas Tournament and the Rough Rider Invitational last month. Jared Newhall (170) also brought home an individual title for the Olympians at the Rough Rider Invite. Tamaqua’s Bronson Strouse placed first at the Bloomsburg Invitational to open the season at 285 pounds. Pleasant Valley’s James Syracuse (160) and Chris Frable (195) picked up individual titles this past weekend at the South Williamsport Tournament.



WHAT TO WATCH FOR ... Lehighton will host its annual Indian Duals tournament this weekend. Panther Valley and Jim Thorpe are also scheduled to compete. Whitehall went 5-0 to win its second title at the event a year ago, with the Tribe placing second. Pool A will be comprised of Jim Thorpe, East Stroudsburg North, Tunkannock and Allen; while Lehighton, Panther Valley, Whitehall and Scranton will be in Pool B. Action is scheduled to begin with Round 1 at 8 a.m. through Round 4, which is scheduled to take place from 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m. The schedule for Rounds 5 (1-2:15 p.m.), 6 (2:15-3:30) and 7 (3:30-4:45) will be determined by pool records. All action will take place on three mats. The event will serve as a tuneup of sorts for next week’s Schuylkill League Tournament, which will be held at Jim Thorpe on Friday and Saturday. The following week is Panther Valley’s always competitive Coal Cracker Tournament, which will be held on Jan. 24 and 25.



COMING SOON ... The first set of Times News Mat Rankings will be released next week. They will run on an alternating schedule with the boys and girls basketball stats each week throughout the season.


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