BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – When you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before, it’s sometimes difficult to decipher exactly when you’ve arrived. Or, as in the case of the Palmyra football team, when the destination is so desirable, you really want to be absoultely sure you’re there.
On Friday night at Buck Swank Stadium, the Cougars unofficially clinched their first-ever postseason berth with a dominant 30-0 whitewashing of a good East Pennsboro club. Palmyra got the job done with a ball-control offense, big plays and a suffocating defense.
The Cougar scored two touchdowns late in the opening period to open up a 14-0 advantage, then put the outcome to bed with a pair of scores 22 seconds apart early in the third.
With the victory and three games left in the regular season, Palmyra improved to 7-0 overall and 5-0 uin the Capital Division of the Mid-Penn Conference. The worst the Cougars, who currently sit third in the District Three Class AAA power rankings, can finish is 7-3.
Last season, the Cougars went 6-4 and missed the district tournament by percentage points. Palmyra is the only Lebanon County scholastic program to have never qualified for the playoffs. Until Friday.
“It’s a good win for our football program,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “It’s been a long, long time since a team has gone 7-0. And it got us a little closer to that playoff berth.
“That’s why I said it got us closer,” Pope continued. “You never know. It probably did get us in. But it depends on other teams and their power rankings. When they put that little asterick aside of your name, that’s when you know for sure.”
“It’s quite unexpected,” said Cougar star running back Preston Bare of his team’s 7-0 mark, “but it feels great.”
Bare enjoyed yet another big night. The senior tailback rushed 25 times for 255 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 1,485 yards rushing this season and 20 touchdowns. Bare did very little to hurt his 10-plus yards per carry average.
“They do everything for me,” said Bare of his offensive linemen. “They’re playing great every game. We just go great together.”
“I think with Preston, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Pope. “All of a sudden he stops, plants and goes the other way. That’s the athleticism of Preston Bare. That and the offensive line.”
Bare’s athleticism was on full display on Palmyra’s first touchdown, which came with 4:43 left in the first quarter. On a third-and-20 from the Cougar 35-yard line, Bare went up the middle, broke through the first wave of tacklers then out raced everyone to the right pylon.
On East Pennsboro’s ensuing possession, Palmyra used another big play to go up 14-0. On a fourth and 14 from the Cougar 31, Palmyra linebacker Nick Slobozien picked an errant Panther aerial and returned it 81 yards to ‘The House’.
It was the first of six intercpetions the Cougars would come up with.
“One of the best defenses is having a great offense grinding it out,” said Pope. “And we were able to throw in key spots. And once we got on them that did alter what they could do.
“Where we were concerned coming into the season was the defensive line,” Pope continued, “and they’ve stepped up. They’ve worked hard and progressed.”
Late in the second quarter, the time came for the quarterback to make a play and junior Mason Laudermilch stepped up. His 52-yard run with a keeper set up Matt Smoluk’s 22-yard field goal that made it 17-0 Cougars.
“I don’t think I’d say it was easy,” said Pope. “Our kids did what they had to do. Our kids work hard in practice. They’re student/athletes and they take care of business in the class room first.
“I thought if we played to our potential that we could win the football game,” added Pope. “I didn’t think we’d get a shutout.”
Using clock and feeding the Panthers a steady dose of Bare, Palmyra drove the second-half kickoff 63 yards in eight plays. Laudermilch applied the finishing touch to the march with a six-yard boot-leg that upped the Cougars’ advantage to 24-0.
But Palmyra wasn’t finished. Interior linemen Tyler Rivera picked off an EP pass on the very next play, and rambled down to the two-yard line, before Bare punched it in from there.
“There’s other things that have come along,” said Pope of his club’s goals. “Back-to-back winning seasons for instance. As we journey through the season, we’re hitting other marks. But getting into the playoffs is something we really wanted to accomplish.”
While piling up 337 yards of total offense, Palmyra limited East Pennsboro, now 4-3, to 186 yards. Not only did the Cougars come up with six interceptions, but five different defenders were guilty of thievery – Dom Faiola, who had two, Slobozien, Rivera, Shawn Mayer and Isaac Romberger.
Up next for Palmyra is a trip to powerful Trinity in a contest that will decide the Capital Division championship. Then the Cougars travel to Northern Lebanon for a clash with the Vikings, before returning home to host Milton Hershey in the regular-season finale.