Icing on a cake. Cherry on top of a sundae. Parsley on a plate full of steak.
The Palmyra girls’ cross country team’s 2012 season would’ve been special without a state championship. But somehow, the things which made the Cougars special also made them state champs.
It was chemistry, hard work and leadership that were the meat, potatoes and vegetables of Palmyra’s delectable and fulfilling campaign.
On Saturday at Hershey’s 3.1-mile Parkview course, located across from Giant Center, the Cougars topped the most magical cross country season in school history with a PIAA Class AA championship. The crown was Palmyra’s first cross country state title ever, the school district’s first team state championship since 2007 and just the fourth PIAA title by a Cougar team in school history.
“I think (senior) Laura Duquette said it best, ‘We’re friends,'” said Palmyra head coach Barb Mellinger. “It’s a very special team. They all get along. They weren’t racing for themselves. I told our freshmen that they were very lucky to be with this group of leaders.
“As a coach, I talked about this with the team: it’s easier for the team to do well when they’re doing it for each other,” Mellinger continued. “They have to think outside their little worlds. Laura Duquette’s goal card going into states said, ‘Whatever it takes.'”
But it wasn’t easy. There were tense moments before, during and after Saturday’s running of the PIAA Class AA meet. And there were times when it appeared that Palmyra would finish second to the girls from Dallas.
“I remember watching them (her runners) at the mile-and-a-half mark, and we didn’t have anyone in the top 15,” said Mellinger. “I figured we were in second or third. But my one coach, Don Papson was being very optimistic. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know.’ They (her girls) finished really strong, and the Dallas girls came back to us.
“I’m not sure it really has sunk in yet,” added Mellinger. “I’m kind of glad it hasn’t, because every time it hits me, I get really excited.”
As she’s done all season, sophomore Maria Tukis, the reigning District Three Class AA champion, showed the way for Palmyra. Tukis finished ninth in 19:40, while fellow sophomore Miranda Salvo ran the race of her life, a tenth-place showing in 19:43 that almost shaved a minute off her district time.
Steady senior Olivia Farabaugh came in 17th overall for Palmyra, while Duquette was 23rd. Surprising junior Devin Strynkowski ran a 20:42 to take the 40th spot.
“We had two girls who really stepped up,” said Mellinger. “Maria Salvo, who loves the cold weather, ran 50 seconds faster than she did at districts. And Devin Strynkowski was 22 seconds faster than she was at districts. Those were huge. When you’re talking 3.1 miles, that’s a lot faster.
“Did we know we were going to win?,” continued Mellinger. “The answer is no. But realizing going into it that you can win helps you perform better.”
Throughout the season, Palmyra won just about everything in which it ran. The Cougars were Lebanon Valley College Invitational, Lebanon County, Mid-Penn Keystone Division, Mid-Penn Conference and District Three Class AA champions.
The only meet from which the Cougars didn’t emerge victorious was the Carlisle Invitational. There Palmyra was beaten by Pennsbury, which ran away with the PIAA Class AAA crown.
“Last spring, our goal was to win districts,” said Mellinger. “The three classes (Class A was added this season) made a big difference. But I never really went past that. At the beginning of the season we had some setbacks. We had some breathing issues, some back issues. But we had girls step up when we needed them to.
“It (thoughts of a possible state championship) did start to creep in,” Mellinger added. “I saw rankings that had us number one in AA. But I never discussed the rankings with the girls. I knew Dallas was going to be an issue. But I’m kind of a one-meet-at-a-time person.”
Every class – seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen – contributed to Palmyra’s success. And the fact that the leadership role was shared throughout the squad made for an interesting team dynamic.
“We stayed together the night before the state meet at the (Hershey) Lodge,” said Mellinger. “A wise person once told me that way you sleep better because you know where they (her runners) are. Maria (Tukis) was with me and we were driving to the meet. At that point I was trying to come up with some wisdom. But as a coach, there’s not much you can do. I tried to stay in tune with what Maria was thinking.”
But it was Tukis who took it upon herself to shoulder the leadership role, at least physically.
“It got to the point where she was first for us every single day,” said Mellinger of Tukis. “She was the leader. There’s one quote that says, ‘The vision of the leader is the hope of the pack.’ That sort of sums up her role. She took on the leadership role.
“She never wavered in any race,” Mellinger continued. “She was second in our last home meet, and Olivia (Farabaugh) passed her. But that was more of a friendly thing. It’s her (Tukis’) determination and drive that puts her up there. She’s earned that spot. She has so much natural talent, and so much of it is heart and soul.
“It’s a combination. Whatever mix there is in that head and body, it’s working. I try not to mess with it. But all of those girls have that too. They’re extremely competitive, but it’s a healthy competition.”
And that competition helped create depth, depth that stretched beyond the Cougars’ top-five scorers.
“We probably had ten or eleven girls fighting to make districts at the Mid-Penn meet,” said Mellinger. “It helped push from the back.
“We had enough depth that when things like injuries happened, it enabled other girls to step in,” added Mellinger. “Even in the top five to seven, there was flip-flopping. They realized no matter what they were doing, they were helping the team.”