BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – Given their career achievements, a cool, catchy nickname would seem to be in order. Certainly there are groups out there with flashy handles which have accomplished less.
Their coach simply refers to them as ‘The Four Captains’. But that doesn’t seem to exude quite enough pizzazz.
How about ‘The Quintessential Quartet’? Or ‘The Phenomenal Foursome’? Or the firm of ‘Smoluk-McClellan-Tukis-Dembrowski’ – because of their ability to lay down the law.
Or perhaps, reverting back to the more generic approach, maybe we should just call them ‘winners’. Because there are few single words which can describe them better as a group, and after all they’ve always been more about substance than style.
Kristen Smoluk, Katy McClellan, Maria Tukis and Katie Dembrowski are all splendid student-athletes in their own rights. But what they have been able to accomplish together in a sport, which for some isn’t their primary one, is down right remarkable.
There are very few quartets in the annals of Lebanon County scholastic basketball who have achieved more.
“These girls’ legacy as athletes in all sports is incredible,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “They expect to win in everything they do, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to be winners. If we compete every game, we will be a tough team to beat. We’re not overly skilled, but we’re tremendously athletic.
“All four play three sports,” continued Berman. “They’re all involved in track, and they’re good at it. I think that’s really neat. They’re enjoying their high school years. They and their parents have been dedicated since Day One. So many kids are quitting to play one sport.”
As seniors, Dembrowski, Tukis, McClellan and Smoluk are poised to place a huge exclamation point on their hoops legacy as Cougars. But it would seem that simply duplicating something similar to any of their first three years would be more than enough.
Over their first three seasons together, The Quintessential Quartet has compiled an amazing overall record of 77-11 – that’s an incredible winning percentage of .875. Now throw in a state final four appearance, a District Three Class AAA crown, a Mid-Penn Conference title, two Keystone Division championships and one has the makings of a career to hang his or her hat upon.
“They’ve been an instrumental part all three years,” said Berman. “Some as starters, some as key players off the bench. With the four of them, we have a great rotation going. They all played since their freshman year, and each year they’ve all picked up more and more responsibility. They’ve had an impact since they got into the program. Their attitudes are so good.”
While each of The Phenomenal Foursome brings something unique to the table, the most important characteristic they share is their athleticism. The fact that that they complement each other so well makes Palmyra both balanced and flexible.
A 5-10 forward, Smoluk is a smooth, long, talented performer with unrealized potential. Tukis, a champion runner on the track and across the country, is a hard-nosed driver and defender.
McClellan, a 5-9 forward and soccer goalie, is a fearless and tenacious defensive whiz and rebounder. And Dembrowski, a celebrated Division One field hockey player headed to Penn State, has matured into one of the finest point guards in District Three.
“Maria Tukis, Katie Dembrowski and Katy McClellan are certainly our high energy girls,” said Berman. “All three are as good at defending the perimeter as any player I’ve ever had. We’ve got to continue to play at a fast tempo, press, play a full court game for us to be successful.
“Kristen is the purest basketball player of the group,” added Berman. “Katy McClellan is certainly an outstanding rebounder, and her toughness is incredible. Tukis is an explosive player, and Katie D.’s court vision is as good as I’ve ever coached. But all four bring a unique aspect to the game.”
But while Smoluk-Tukis-McClellan-Dembrowski may be the foundation of the Cougars’ success, there will come contributions from other sources which will complete the picture. Molly Gundermann, a 5-10 junior forward, Jess Dembrowski, a 5-8 sophomore guard, and Kailey Werkheiser, a 5-7 junior sharp shooter, all have much to offer.
Josie Stovall, a 5-10 forward who burst on to the scene last season as a sophomore, will be on the shelf with a knee injury until January. But when she returns, Stovall will provide Palmyra with an even different dimension.
“I put out goals and pretty much get them to agree on them,” said Berman, whose program will be competing on the Class AAAA level for the first time this season. “Most of our goals are about how we play. Quad-A districts is new for us. It’s a new challenge. We talked about going after another Mid-Penn Keystone Division championship. We’d like to win something.
“When you’ve had 13 winning season in-a-row, you don’t have to talk about having a winning season,” Berman added. “When you are good and have a reputation, you get all teams’ best shots. It can be a reminder for the kids. Sometimes they think, ‘We were good last year, we’ll be good this year.’ But if we don’t bring energy and that attitude, we’re an average team.”
The Cougars, whose inspired play following a District Three loss landed them in last season’s PIAA Class AAA semifinals, will begin this year’s journey on Friday, December 5th in the opening round of the Northern Lebanon Tip-Off Tournament.
“Missing Josie Stovall is something we’re concerned about,” said Berman, who was recently inducted into the Central Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. “We’ve got to buy time. If we can get to January, having her back will help us in the postseason. Our best will come later, if we don’t suffer any more injuries. Meanwhile, we’ve got to keep our heads above water. Josie is very important. She was a starter last year. She became maybe as consistent and dependable a player as we had last year.
“We talk a lot about offensive rebounds and getting second opportunities,” Berman continued. “We have to fast break, get to the basket and get to the foul line. Scoring can be our weakness. We’re going to do what we do. And if you stop us, you stop us, and we lose.”
Every one out of eight times.