HERSHEY – Think of it as a mentorship. A protege program. A big-little sisterhood.
An older member of the Palmyra field hockey program takes a younger one under her wing and shows her the ropes through hands-on instruction and personal example. All ears, the underclassmen imitate sponges, absorbing every bit of information relayed their way.
It’s a great way to form team bonds, foster individual chemistry and pass on tradition.
On Saturday afternoon at Milton Hershey School’s Henry Hershey Field, the Cougars’ apprenticeship program served it well, as freshman Alexis Smith and junior Erin Huffman combined for three goals and two assists during a dominant 3-0 victory over Cedar Cliff, in a quarterfinal match of the District Three Class AAA tournament. Huffman set up Smith on the Cougars’ first two scores, as Palmyra potted a trio of goals during a first half in which it simply took it to the Colts.
Palmyra out shot Cedar Cliff 17-0 during the initial 30 minutes of action, and finished with a 24-2 advantage in shots.
With the result, second-seeded Palmyra moved to 19-1 and into Tuesday’s semifinal round opposite third-seeded Cumberland Valley, a 2-0 victor over Hershey. That match will be staged on Tuesday at 5 p.m., back at MHS’ Henry Hershey Field.
“You have a situation here where last year’s team may have been as good as any we’ve had,” said Kent Harshman, Palmyra’s interim head coach and the Cougar family’s newest grandfather. “This year’s team has had people step in who didn’t have a lot of experience. But our core group has a tremendous amount of talent, and they’re carrying us. The younger girls have been able to gain energy from the more experienced players. I think this team is a team that has maybe surprised some people.
“There were some questions about this group coming into the season, and rightfully so,” continued Harshman. “We lost a lot of talent and we were going into AAA. But just like every one, we’re extremely proud of this group.”
Relentlessly pursuing the ball, Huffman picked a Colt defender’s pocket, and carried her steal for a few dribbles, before sending a cross from the right side of the field. Stationed in front of the cage, Smith banged the feed home, over Cedar Cliff’s sprawled goalie, Maura Jacobs.
“We were sharp. We were very sharp,” said Harshman, who’s filling in for daughter Kristi Costello, as she recovers from injuries sustained in a car accident on Tuesday. “Every girl has now gotten to see Kristi in person or got some face time with her. I think there was some comfort derived from that.
“I think our team recognized that this is the postseason,” added Harshman. “You’ve only got to prepare for one game at a time. I thought we got at it right away. It allowed us to put pressure on them.”
Huffman’s and Smith’s second collaboration came 3:47 later.
Following some near constant pressure on the Cedar Cliff cage, a scramble ensued in the Colts’ goal mouth. With a number of Palmyra players poking at the ball, Huffman was able to keep it alive long enough for Smith to push it home.
“Lexi is a freshman. Erin’s a senior and her play speaks for itself,” said Harshman. “She’s a good scorer and a great field hockey player. She had leg cramps against Elizabethtown on Tuesday and that hindered her play. But she was very fresh today.
“Lexi is just doing great work for us,” continued Harshman. “She has worked very, very hard to get the playing time she is getting. She gets her stick on balls and is very good at tipping balls. Lexi has no fear of the ball, no apprehension. She puts a lot of pressure on defenses with her speed up front.”
With 4:34 remaining before halftime, Huffman turned from creating to scoring. But just like the Cougars’ two previous tallies, this one was more about desire than talent or skill.
Off a corner insertion from Jessica Dembrowski, Kiley Gallagher unleashed a hard drive on Jacobs from the top of the circle. Lost in her pads, Jacobs momentarily lost sight of the ball, but Huffman never did, and banged it through her and into the goal.
“This was a double-edged sword game,” said Harshmann, metaphorically. “If you don’t win it, you go home. If you do, you play three more games. We kept our season alive and assured ourselves a state berth. But every one of our girls understands where we are in the season, all the time.
Cedar Cliff didn’t register its first shot on Cougar goalie Cheyenne Sprecher until 11:11 of the second half had elapsed. Palmyra was awarded 12 penalty corners in the contest, compared to one for the Colts.
“We were prepared for anything this week,” said Harshman. “It (the injury Sprecher sustained in Tuesday’s first half against Elizabethtown) was an injury you can’t make worse by playing. It was a matter of her playing through the pain.
“Kristi (Costello) and I have tended to get a lot of the attention,” added Harshman. “But we have a staff of six assistants. My hat goes off to our coaching staff, which is an excellent collection of individuals. We are so blessed to have players come back and help coach.”
Class AAA Field Hockey Quarterfinals
Lower Dauphin vs. Warwick – Lower Dauphin 4-0
Penn Manor vs. Central York – Penn Manor 5-0
Palmyra vs. Cedar Cliff – Palmyra 3-0
Cumberland Valley vs. Hershey – Cumberland Valley 2-0