PALMYRA – This report on Palmyra’s prospects for the 2020 season represents the final preview of Lebanon County’s six scholastic football teams. What we’ve uncovered during our little tour of the local training camps are a few truths to be self-evident.
First and foremost, Lebanon County teams are excited and energized to play during these uncertain times – they really want to play football. And for the vast majority, the squads are doing everything they possibly can – including wearing masks, social distancing and hand-sanitizing – to keep themselves safe and healthy.
The six Lebanon County teams are taking nothing for granted, they realize that playing football this season is a priviledge that can be taken away from them at any moment, something that causes them to appreciate the game they love even more. Finally, what the locals have come to realize is that, if they can stay safe, being outdoors and playing football are healthy pursuits.
Man, talk about your life lessons.
“I think it’s good for the kids,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “I think everybody can agree that getting out here is good for the kids. I don’t think staying home all the time is healthy. Kids are resilient, but they have felt the effects of it (the COVID-19 pandemic). Things have definitely changed, but at least we’re out here playing. I feel pretty fortunate, to be honest.
“The season’s really been chopped up, starting with our Senior Night on the (September) 25th,” continued Pope. “These next few weeks are really going to tell. If things are going to happen, they’re going to happen soon. Maybe it won’t be as bad as we thought. I hope so.”
What Pope so eloquently stated represents the feelings of Lebanon County football teams as a whole. But Palmyra will open its seven-game season a week later than the rest of the local clubs, on that final Friday in September, at Buck Swank Stadium versus Holidaysburg.
“I’m excited about the year,” said Pope, whose Cougars have moved from the Capital Division to the Keystone Division under the Mid-Penn Conference’s latest realignment. “It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. But no matter what happens, we get most of these guys back next year.
“At the most basic level, what we want is to be able to compete every game,” added Pope. “That could be a tall order. A lot has happened this year, but if we can compete, get some experience and win some games, that’s good. It’s been a lot to keep on track.”
During Pope’s 13 years in Palmyra, the Cougars have established some consistency and an expectation for winning. Last season, Palmyra went 4-6, but there was a feeling outside of the program that the Cougars really got the most out of their players.
“That seems like an eternity ago,” said Pope. “But what sticks out in my mind is that we didn’t get off to a good start. We got off to a rough start. Hopefully we’ll get off to a better one this year with the delayed start.
“I think the previous season always matters, to some degree,” Pope continued. “That’s what a winning tradition is about, carry-over. We as coaches are always looking to turn things into positives. Last year, we could’ve easily been 6-4.”
Among its roster of 49 student-athletes, Palmyra returns five starters on offense and a similar number on defense. The Cougars will also feature a good mixture and balance of seniors, juniors and sophomores.
“We’re replacing half of our starters,” said Pope. “I always feel like we’re thin and that we could have more guys. But I like my guys. We have some guys who have great personalities, and they’ve really been working hard.
“We’re younger,” Pope added. “We have a young offensive line, but it’s not like they’re devoid of experience. We knew that was an area we wanted to work on. We’re a little older in the skill positions. We’re just hoping this thing lasts long enough to get some games in so these guys can develop.”
With senior Seth Robertson at the quarterback position, senior Nick Wallaesa at one of the running back spots, senior Gage Miller and junior Jake Deimling at receivers, the Cougars are talented at the skill positions. Palmyra also has senior Sam Landon, senior Tristan Murawski and junior Jase Jones pushing for practice reps at those spots.
“I think we have good team leadership, a team that has the ability to be close-knit,” said Pope. “I see some things that are positive. We have some seniors stepping up, and including everybody.
“I would say we need to improve as a whole team,” continued Pope. “I don’t think we’re there, yet. Up front, we need the entire group to get better. We want to be good enough to compete, while we’re getting experience.”
The Cougars’ line play will be built around junior Jordan Blauch, junior Daniel Steskal, senior Tyler Shertzer, junior Jon Eisenhooth and senior Jack Stretch. It may be the development of those linemen and others that ultimately determine Palmyra’s fate this year.
“We’re starting to get into that rhythm,” said Pope. “I feel like we’re starting to get into that groove. It was a little bit of a slow start.”
9/25 vs. Holidaysburg, 7
10/2 at Red Land, 7
10/9 vs. Hershey, 7:30
10/16 vs. Cedar Cliff, 7
10/23 at Mifflin County, 7
10/30 vs. Lower Dauphin, 7
11/6 at Bishop McDevitt, 7