BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – Everybody knows winning is important. But exactly how important is it?
Is it the most important thing in sports? Is it essential for a successful season?
And where does it rank in relation to the love of the game, camaraderie or the thrill of competition?
Those are all questions that the Palmyra football team wrestles with, if nowhere else, at least in the back of its collective mind.
After going win-less last season, the Cougars are in the midst of an 11-game losing streak dating back to the 2011 postseason. That fact is as important or unimportant as one cares to make it out to be.
“Each year we go on a retreat at Camp Swatara and do goal-setting,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “I think team-goal-wise, everybody understands the division (Keystone of the Mid-Penn Conference) in is going to be difficult. Right now, we’re on an 11-game losing streak, so I think we’re really focusing on getting that first one. But we’re not selling ourselves short. Getting that first win is important.
“I always think last year is last year,” Pope continued. “This year we have some games we can compete in. That number (turnout) line is a critical line. When you’re below it, you kind of go into that red zone and spiral down. Right now, we’ve got some guys who are injured, and it puts stress on other guys.”
As odd is it may sound, Palmyra might have gotten the most it could’ve out of its limited troops last season. With 25-30 players dressing, the Cougars were almost always competitive, until those numbers betrayed them and they wore down in the second half.
“Last year, our numbers put us in a tough position,” said Pope. “I just remember the fight in those guys. It was like walking up Mount Everest, and they kept walking. We showed up for every game, and we were putting out every time out.
“We just didn’t have replacements,” Pope added. “The cupboard was really short. There’s still some of that lingering. I’m very on edge about conditioning. In the back of my mind, I know we have some guys (this season) who can sub in. But it’s still not going to be easy.”
The Cougars’ numbers are up noticeably this season, to 40. After graduating 15 seniors, half of this year’s Palmyra roster is made up of sophomores and freshmen.
But Palmyra is still one of the smallest schools in the Keystone Division of the MPC.
“Last year our guys picked up some valuable knowledge about the depth of the Keystone Division,” said Pope. “We have some guys ready to scrap and get after it. When you don’t have a lot of players it can be a struggle physically and it can be a struggle mentally. It can take a toll on a player’s’ psyche.
“In the short term this year, I think there’s some games we can compete in,” said Pope. “In the long term, we don’t graduate many guys so we’ll be returning a lot next year. We’re going to have a lot of young guys on the field. We don’t have a lot of experience, so there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve.”
The Cougars only return five starters on offense and a mere four on defense. But in hard-nosed senior Joey Hess, flashy receiver Mitchell Cooper, lineman Jordan Klinger, corner back Ethan Harro, reliable tight-end Sam Beacher, rough-and-tumble fullback Ant Faiola, tailback Austin Combs and sophomore wide-out/safety Tyler Gallagher Palmyra boasts some big-time performers.
“I’m happy where our conditioning is, our tackling and getting to the football,” said Pope. “I feel like we’re already there. I think our passing game is coming along nicely, and I think that’s going to help our running game, which is a little bit in reverse.
“Where we need to continue to get better is our offensive and defensive lines,” added Pope. “We’re young there. Joey Hess and Sam Beacher, they’re the two guys who have the most experience. But the young guys are coming. From the preseason to now, there’s been marked improvement. I’m happy. We’re making progress.”
Especially new quarterback Michael Lewis, who saw limited snaps last season. What Pope really likes about Lewis is his mobility and his ability to throw the ball on the move.
“He is way beyond where I thought he would be, because of his work ethic,” said Pope of Lewis. “He worked hard in the off season and it really paid off. He’s got to work on his consistency. He’s very proficient getting outside the pocket in our sprint passing game.
“I’m happy,” continued Pope. “I’m proud of our guys. Our staff is great and we have a great group of kids. I look forward to every day that I work with them.”
And in that vein, Pope sees the program’s recent struggles as being a downturn rather than a trend.
“When I look at the enormously big picture, when I came here in 1996 with Joe Buehler, they were on a long losing streak and it was a project,” said Pope. “I just feel right now that we’ve come so far. Before teams didn’t even have to prepare to beat us, and now they can’t take us lightly. Even though it seems like we took a step backwards, we had a low turn-out and got bumped up into a bigger division.
“We’re not rebuilding,” Pope concluded. “Our numbers have climbed a little bit and I think they’ll go up again next year. We go back to the Capital (Division of the MPC) next year and I think we’ll get back on track.”