BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – Given its talent, interchangeability and athleticism, it’s always intriguing to wonder about how good the Palmyra girls’ basketball team could be. But if there’s one certainty about the Cougars it’s that they’ll always be as good as they can be.
It is head coach Ron Berman’s unwritten but understood task to extract the best from his players and mold them into a functioning machine-like locomotive. Part of the reason Berman is so good at what he does is that he focuses more on the ‘cans’ than the ‘could’ve’s.
Yes, Berman’s Cougars will be Lebanon County’s finest girls’ squad again in 2013-14, and among the top Class AAA clubs in District Three. And while that’s good enough for now, three months of Berman’s coaxing, nurturing and mentoring should reveal Palmyra’s true potential.
“I’m a ‘whole-then-break-it-down’ type of coach,” said Berman, who’s in his 14th season of coaching the girls at Palmyra. “During the first two weeks of practice, we put in 90 percent of what we’re going to run, but poorly. We jam it in there. I’ve scripted the first two to three weeks of practice, up to the first game. And then the next ten to 12 weeks, we work on team execution and individual development. We want to get in, give them (his players) understanding and then get better.
“We have some very good athletes and some very good size,” Berman continued. “Our sophomores are 5-10 and very athletic girls. It’s not like we’re putting in non-sized or non-athletic girls. But it’s a big jump from a JV player to a varsity player. Now some of our players aren’t going to see JV games. But it’s not like the cupboard is bare.”
The Cougars are coming off a season for the ages.
They went 29-1 a year ago, with the ‘1’ being a loss in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA tournament. Along the way, Palmyra added yet another Keystone Division title, an overall Mid-Penn Conference championship and a District Three crown.
If this year’s goals are in any way based on what occurred last season, then the bar is set very high.
” We called last season ‘a perfect storm’,” said Berman. “We lost two starters (Maddie Good and Cali Good) because of soccer, and because of that we had rapid development of the sophomores. We were able to win games early and just gained confidence. That’s how the season unfolded.
“There’s 500 school districts in the state and 490 have basketball, and only four don’t end their seasons with losses,” added Berman. “I’ll take 29 wins quickly, over one loss. I won’t say it didn’t bother us. I don’t think there was any point where we thought about the loss more than the wins. It was a disappointing ride home with a lot of tears. But eventually we were able to celebrate what we accomplished.”
Gone from that outfit are graduated seniors Kait Carmo, Gabi Gundermann, Allison Langley, Katie Gundermann and Emily Kleckner. And currently, Palmyra is dealing with a different type of loss, the one that comes from injuries.
Athletic junior guard Kristen Smoluk is day-to-day with a shoulder injury, junior point guard Katie Dembrowski could be nursing a broken wrist until the middle of January, and CeCe Richardson, another one of Palmyra’s top seven, is on the shelf for an undisclosed length of time.
“Katie Dembrowski is a major loss,” said Berman. “She’s the first girl I’ve had who had more assists than turnovers. She’s my best ball handler, by far, and my best defender. Kristen Smoluk hurt her shoulder in our scrimmage, so we’ve been hit hard. We lost three of what I anticipated to be our top seven. Right now, we’re trying to get a flow.
“We just went from eight or nine deep, to five or six deep,” Berman continued. “When you like to play full court man (-to-man defense), depth is a major factor. We’re not looking for any sympathy. Certainly we have enough talent to have a good season. But we could struggle early, and then get better.”
Before pushing any Palmyra panic button, consider who’s still standing for the Cougars. The head of Palmyra’s dangerous monster is senior forward Carly Richardson, who’s headed to Division One Bucknell just as much for her rebounding prowess as her dead-eye shooting.
Junior guard Maria Tukis, a high energy, high emotion player, appears fully recovered from a broken foot sustained during the cross country campaign. And teammate Katie McClellan, a 5-8 junior guard, is a fearless inside scorer and defender.
“My wife is always on me, ‘Don’t complain. Adjust!’,” said Berman. “We can only control what we control. We don’t think about ‘what ifs’. But better individuals make a better team. The emphasis at the beginning is always about the team.
“We’ve had 13 straight winning seasons, and been to districts 12 times,” Berman added. “The expectation is to win, and compete in the postseason. Anything less than that would be a major disappointment for everyone, even in the community. We don’t lower our expectations, even when we have injuries.”
Look for 5-10 sophomore Molly Gundermann and 5-10 sophomore Josie Stovall to also contribute this season, and to blossom in their own times.
“We got thumped by Cumberland Valley in a scrimmage,” said Berman. “They were more physical and more aggressive. They were faster and quicker to the ball, because I think our kids weren’t as confident. We’ve got to get them more comfortable in their roles. We’ve lost some really good ball defenders.
“It’s (replacing Dembrowski’s ball handling skills) kind of like a bull pen by committee,” continued Berman. “Maybe we’ll take advantage of mismatches and match-ups. Less dribbling and more passing. But I’m not worried about pressure. Unfortunately Katie Dembrowski was my best defender too. She had so many roles for us.”
The Cougars will begin their 2013-14 quest on Friday, December 6th in the opening round of the Northern Lebanon Tip-Off Tournament.
“We have the same goals every year, ‘Play hard. Play smart. Play together. And have fun,'” said Berman. “That’s one of the discussions in our post-game talk, ‘Did we play hard? Did we play smart? Did we play together? Did we have fun?’
“Our goal is to get ourselves in position to win the Keystone Division,” Berman continued. “And then get in the position for the postseason. We’re certainly not going to lower those goals.”