Coach of the Year: James Pannell, Kiowa

DEREK HATRIDGE | Staff file photoKiowa's James Pannell was named as the 2021 McAlester News-Capital Girls Basketball Coach of the Year after leading the Cowgirls to their first-ever state tournament finals.

James Pannell's mind hasn’t stopped racing since he walked off the floor at Jim Norick Arena.

The Kiowa coach made school history as his Cowgirl squad became the first girls team in school history to make the state tournament finals. And while he admits that it was an enjoyable experience, his thoughts began to leap forward about what comes next.

Still, he smiled to think about the journey that led to him being named the 2021 McAlester News-Capital Girls Basketball All-Area Coach of the Year.

“I’m really not a ‘rah-rah’ guy, so, you know, my mind goes on to ‘OK, so what happens next season?’” Pannell said. “But at the same time, I always tell the girls ‘make sure you enjoy the special moments.’ And that’s certainly one of the special moments to make a run like that and to do something Kiowa’s never done.

"It’s going to be fond memories for years to come," he added.

Pannell said the Cowgirls’ nail-biting 67-60 state finals loss to Lomega could have easily put a stinging end to the season.

Instead, he said it was an honor and absolute joy to even be a part of the historic game.

“Even though we ended up getting beat by seven there, it was an incredibly fun game to get to be involved it,” he said. “It was a good game, good basketball. It was high-level basketball. Everybody was competing and everybody was playing as hard as they’ve ever played in their life.”

When he looked back on the season as a whole, Pannell didn’t shy away from the struggles his team endured — especially when it came to stoppages stemming from COVID-19.

“Chaotic, still, is how I think you would describe it,” Pannell said.

Cancelled games and four team quarantine periods put the Cowgirls on the ropes. Pannell admitted that there were points when he almost considered the entire season could be a wash. But that never stopped them from working, even if they had to do it individually at home.

“It was the most difficult thing. It really was,” Pannell said. “The idea is to keep them focused, keep them in shape…even just the moral. They would just get depressed at times, and even when we finally got back o being in the gym, they were always scared that maybe we’d get kicked out again.

“So, there was some depression you fought,” he continued. "That was I think the biggest challenge of the season. I’m going to be honest, there were times that I thought ‘well, it’s got us. it’s done.’ But for us in the end, it didn’t.”

Pannell said he’s truly grateful for his team and the journey they’ve been able to experience together. He’s proud of what Kiowa has been able to accomplish this season, and — as his mind is wont to do — he’s excited to think about what the future holds as well.

“For us, in the end, it was a lot of jubilation, a lot of joy, and a lot of fun...They’re an unbelievable set of kids, they’re an unbelievable set of athletes. They’ve really been through quite a bit, and they’ve just grown so much over my four years here,” Pannell said. “But what they really are, especially this group of seniors but even the young ones, they are such competitors. That’s what we’ve always known about them…that’s what makes them enjoyable to be around as a coach.”

Contact Derek Hatridge at dhatridge@mcalesternews.com.

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