BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – The Palmyra boys’ basketball program is entering into a fragile phase of its development. With a rare playoff berth seemingly secure, the Cougars must guard against being content with simply ‘getting there.’
On Friday night, Palmyra suffered its third straight setback, falling to rival Lower Dauphin 60-52. The Cougars trailed most of the way, after Lower Dauphin established a bit of a cushion late in the opening quarter.
With games against Muhlenberg and Mechanicsburg remaining, Palmyra is now 11-9 overall and 3-7 in the Keystone Division of the Mid-Penn Conference. The Falcons, who are led by former Cougar head coach and current Palmyra High School english teacher Mark Hofsass, moved to 10-9 on the year and 4-7 in the conference.
Back on January 10, Palmyra defeated Lower Dauphin 51-47 in Hummelstown.
“You try and communicate that to them,” said Palmyra head coach Pete Conrad of keeping his troops hungry. “It (qualifying for the District Three Class AAA postseason) could come down to winning one of those two remaining games. Obviously we’re jockeying for position.
“Give Lower Dauphin credit because they are definitely fighting for their playoff lives,” continued Conrad. “They played like a team trying to control their destiny.”
“It’s awkward,” said Hofsass of coaching against student-athletes he teaches. “I hate this game. It’s an awkward couple of days leading up to this game. I root for them to win every game, except these two (against Lower Dauphin).
“I’ve had almost all of them (the Cougars) in class,” added Hofsass. “They’re very similar to our kids. They’re good kids. They’re good students.”
Hanging around and hanging around, Palmyra made a couple of runs at the Falcons, throughout the contest, but just couldn’t get over the hump. The Cougars led 2-0, 4-2 and 9-7 on a three-pointer from Chris Lynn with 2:55 left in the first period.
But Lower Dauphin netted the last eight points of the opening quarter to establish a 15-9 lead. The Falcons enjoyed a 28-20 margin at the break.
“Any time we did make a run at them, they had an answer,’ said Conrad. “Making their free throws down the stretch was key. They made a total of 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter. That’s the way to close out a game.”
“We either need to win out or win three of four,” said Hofsass. “Basially, everything is a playoff game. But it’s nice to be in important games.”
Lower Dauphin did an admirable job of limiting Cougar scorer Logan Stovall to four points. Palmyra was paced by Dan Rusling’s 14 points and Adam Newhard’s 11.
Lower Dauphin senior Cody Deal, who drew the attendance of a number of Division Three college coaches, including Lebanon Valley’s Brad McAlester, poured in 20 points.
“I thought they played well,” said Conrad of the Falcons. “We didn’t play great. They’re getting better, even this late in the season. They’re very different than the way they were earlier in the year, and in some ways have definitely gotten better.”
“They’re good,” said Hofsass of the Cougars. “They’re a playoff team. Honestly, next year they’ll be one of the favorites in the division. They’re definitely on the up tick.
“I have lots of good memories of coaching here,” Hofsass added. “There’s still players I know and keep in touch with. There were some good players here and some great teams.”
Palmyra pulled within 32-29 on a free throw from Rusling with 2:20 showing on the third-period clock. Then three minutes into the final quarter, Newhard made it 40-37 with a three-pointer.
But the Cougars just couldn’t come up with the crucial stop it needed and the Falcons parade to the charity stripe eventuall produced a 57-45 advantage with 35 seconds remaining.
“We got a great win last Friday at Susquehanna Township,” said Conrad. “But we kind of spent all of the fuel in our tank to do it. We didn’t really have a lot of energy for our game at Manheim Central on Saturday. I’d like to think that it’s more of us going through a rough stretch.”
“Really, it was a similar game,” said Hofsass of the first meeting between the two clubs. “It was nip and tuck, back and forth. But this time when they pressured us, we got some stuff off of it. And we made some shots.”