WEST CHESTER – The closer the combatants, the less margin for error. Games are decided by the roll of a ball here, the bounce of a ball there and every opportunity could be your last.
The line between wins and losses are thin and blurred. Outcomes don’t seem to make sense and results defy explanations or logic.
Welcome to the highest level of competition in high school sports – the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association postseason.
On Tuesday afternoon at West Chester East High School, the Palmyra field hockey team found that harsh dose of reality difficult to swallow. The Cougars endured a gut-wrenching 3-2 loss to Villa Maria in the opening round of the state Class AA playoffs.
Villa Maria netted the deciding goal with 2:58 remaining on a somewhat controversial penalty stroke. Ironically, the Cougars had taken a 2-1 lead early in the second half after sophomore Katie Dembrowski had made good on a penalty stroke of her own.
The loss ended Palmyra’s season at 19-4. Palmyra, the fifth-place finisher out of District Three, was making its sixth straight PIAA postseason appearance, and its 12th in the last 14 years.
Villa Maria’s 20th straight triumph propelled the District One champion into Saturday’s quarterfinal round.
“There are a lot of variables in our sport,” said Palmyra head coach Kristi Costello, who was both gracious and emotional in defeat. “It’s a game of inches. It’s the devils and the details. We just didn’t get things to go our way in the circle, offensively or defensively.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” Costello continued. “We played a great game of field hockey today. This was the best game we played all year. We went out fighting. That’s the message I want the girls to take from this. You don’t always win, but you fight.”
Villa Maria’s controversial stroke resulted from a scramble in the Cougar goal mouth, after Palmyra net-minder Nicole Berger had turned aside three successive Hurricane attempts from a penalty corner play. Villa Maria’s Megan Parsons then proceeded to beat Berger high to the stick side.
“She said she had no questions about it,” said Costello of a conversation she had with the official who awarded the penalty stroke. “I asked if the initial shot was high. She obviously had a better look at it. I was 80 yards away. The rule is that shots can’t be higher than 18 inches.
After Parsons’ game-winner, Villa Maria survived two closing-second penalty corners by Palmyra. The first of which produced a hard rocket off the stick of Kendall Kreider that the Hurricane defense tipped wide.
But that was the only real dangerous opportunity that the Cougar offense generated after Dembrowski’s penalty-stroke goal 7:59 into the second half. That penalty stroke resulted from Cougar freshman Erin Huffman being taken down in the circle by Hurricane goalie Erica Miller.
Dembrowski went high to Miller’s glove side to make it 2-1 Palmyra. But Villa Maria got that one back 8:24 later when Olivia Bolles set up Meghan Murphy for a blast from the right side of the circle.
“Villa Maria is a great team,” said Costello. “We gave them a great game. Kendall Kreider got off an awesome blast. But give credit to the Villa Maria defense. Somehow they stopped it. We definitely had our opportunities at the end.
“I thought they (the Hurricanes) were attacking a little more in the second half,” Costello added. “They may have adjusted some things in the midfield at halftime. It just seemed to me that they were on their toes a little more. But I’m not sure they realized we can play some hockey.”
Villa Maria needed all of 2:13 to assume a 1-0 lead, as Katie Mooney and Caroline Mackrides executed a nifty give-and-go from in close. But with 12:58 remaining in the first half, the Cougars struck back.
Dembrowski set up the tying goal by flipping a long cross from the right side into the eye of the Hurricane cage. In an attempt to one-time the pass, Huffman didn’t get all of it.
But the change of speed caused by the tip threw off Miller’s timing, and the ball trickled into the far side of the goal.
“We’ve really been practicing two touches,” said Costello. “Not taking on an opponent by yourself. There were stretches where we played some of our best hockey of the season. We talked about that yesterday at practice. If we were going to lose, we were going to go out fighting, which we did. We wanted to look our seniors straight in the eye knowing we gave our best effort. We stuck with our game plan. I thought we got looks at the cage.
“I thought the game kind of went back and forth,” Costello continued. “There were times when we had possession. And then there were ten-minute stretches when they had it. But it was a great game up and down the field. I was proud of the way we played and that we went down fighting.
“Our kids kept trying. They kept trying to get the ball down the field.”
Prior to Huffman’s game-tying goal, the Cougars just misfired on hard shots by Haley Bova, and then from Huffman. Palmyra also failed to take advantage of a five-minute, one-player advantage caused by a Villa Maria yellow card late in the first half.
“We definitely left some stuff out,” said Costello of a 19-win season that did not include a championship. “This was certainly an enjoyable year. We don’t have any championships to show for it, but we have some great memories. I don’t necessarily have a star in the senior class, but they starred in their roles.”