BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – There are no good losses. Just bad and worse.
Except in the case of those teams desperate for a win, then there’s also agonizing.
On Friday night at Buck Swank Stadium, the winless Palmyra football team’s best effort to date did not result in a victory. The Cougars were in prime position to pull one out against rival Hershey, before the bottom fell out in the final 1:18 of a 36-21 setback.
With the contest tied at 21 and Palmyra in possession of the ball at midfield, the play that started its downward spiral was an ill-advised decision to go for a first down on a fourth-and-12 snap. Instead of punting the ball away, the Cougars attempted a pass that fell incomplete.
Hershey scored touchdowns on the next two plays from scrimmage. A 48-yard hook-up between Trojan quarterback Zack Drayer and scatback Jesse Campbell on the ensuing snap proved to be the decisive score.
On Palmyra’s next play after the kickoff, Hershey’s Jimmy Eberle returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown that iced it.
With the loss, Palmyra fell to 0-5 on the year and 0-2 in the Keystone Division of the Mid-Penn Conference. The Trojans moved to 4-1.
“I think we were very close,” said an accommodating Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “We competed well. It fell through at the end. It cost us.
“I thought the rivalry with Hershey would make everybody play harder,” Pope added. “Each week we’ve come out ready to go. We’re practicing hard. Because it’s Hershey it might sting a little more. We have five more games, five more opportunities to get a win.”
After having tied the score at 21 on its previous possession, the Cougars appeared poised to strike again, for a possible winning score. But when its drive stalled at the 50-yard line, Palmyra threw out of a shotgun formation on fourth down, instead of punting.
Up until that point, Palmyra had converted five of six fourth-down attempts.
“I think that’s (a punt) what we would’ve liked,” Pope continued. “Mason (Laudermilch) is a great quarterback. It’s not a reflection on him. There’s a lot of things that happened throughout the game. These guys are under a lot of pressure. Everyone wants to do well. Everyone wants to win. He (Laudermilch) did a great job.”
The Cougars had knotted the score with a monsterous 17-play, 80-yard march that mixed the run with the pass and chewed up the majority of the fourth-quarter clock.
Laudermilch, who was five-of-eight on the drive, plunged over from a yard out with 5:23 remaining. A 24-yard Laudermilch connection with Mitchell had perched Palmyra on the doorstep.
“We made strides tonight,” said Pope. “Each game we’ve been showing improvement. This was one of the better games we played. We’ve got to stick together and continue to work hard.
“Right after a game like this, they’re (his players) going to be down,” continued Pope. “I’m really proud of our players. We’ve faced adversity since the first day of practice when we had 29 kids. We’ve been battling since Day One. Their attitudes have been outstanding. We’re 0-5 and they still haven’t let it beat them.”
Facing a 14-0 first-quarter deficit, the Cougars did not hang their heads, they fought back.
Palmyra drove 85 yards on 12 plays to get a 15-yard Laudermilch-to-Alex Graybill passing touchdown. The key play in the possession was an 11-yard hook-up between Laudermilch and Graybill on a fourth-down-and-eight.
Laudermilch completed 16 of 29 pass attempts for 129 yards. Seven different Palmyra players hauled in passes, including Cooper, who caught six balls for 52 receiving yards.
“I think sometimes there are moral victories,” said Pope. “Once the sting of this loss settles we can look back on the things we improved on. If we had done a few more things right we would’ve won a football game.
“I don’t know if it’s (the rivalry with Hershey) so big of a deal, but it makes a difference,” Pope added. “They border us. There’s shared territory. And any time that happens it makes it a little more intense.”
The score was 21-14 at halftime, thanks to a three-yard TD completion from Laudermilch to Tom Weider on a ‘waggle’ call. It culminated a nine-play march sparked by Cooper’s 38-yard return of a kickoff.
Hershey won the total yardage battle 324-283. The Cougars’ cause was hurt by 95 yards in penalties.
“We’ve got to continue to not make mistakes,” said Pope. “I thought we took care of the ball, but made critical ones at the end that hurt us. We definitely got better at tackling. And the defense did a better job.
“We probably have nine or ten guys going both ways,” added Pope. “It’s pretty much everybody. I think it was really obvious at the beginning of the year when the heat was a factor. Now that the weather is changing we’re getting a little break. But it still wears on you. It would be nice to have a few more (players).”