I like Ugly Stiks for entry level, but I really like Bass Pro Micro Lite Graphite series rods for entry level all the way up to expert guide level. They are just a superb rod series and do everything a panfisherman can ever want. They are graphite and the tips are pure carbon so they aren't as durable as the Ugly Stiks, but what the lack in durability they more than make up for in sensitivity and versibility.
For reels I'm still a big fan of Pflueger reels, but it's more because the fit my hand best.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless His Holy Name!