PALMYRA – At the beginning of the season, the Palmyra boys’ soccer team circled this time of the year, this particular goal, this specific moment. Through a lot of hard work and a little persistence, the Cougars have provided themselves with an opportunity.
On a brisk Monday night at Palmyra High School’s OAL Sports Complex, the Cougars barged into the District Three Class AAA championship tilt by dominating Donegal 3-0 in their semifinal meeting. Scoring three times in three distinctly different ways, the Cougars jumped on the Indians early and never allowed their guests to get into the flow of the game.
With the result, second-seeded Palmyra improved to 17-2-1 overall. The Cougars will take on top-seeded and rival Hershey, which edged Fleetwood 1-0 in the other semi, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium, for the District Three Class AAA championship.
Palmyra and Hershey split their two regular season meetings, with the Trojans winning 3-0 at home on September 13 and the Cougars returning the favor at OAL Sports Complex on October 5th.
The Cougars will be making their first District Three championship game appearance since 2011. Palmyra won its only District Three title in 2008.
The setback dropped sixth-seeded Donegal to 14-6-1 on the campaign.
“We set high goals for ourselves,” said Palmyra head coach Jeff Wilver. “The boys have been training hard since March and we felt like it was going to take a lot of work, but the guys are coming together. This was a goal of ours, and now we’ve put ourselves in position to go for it on Thursday.
“I think it’s a process that all team have to go through,” continued Wilver. “We started the season very strong, but that 3-0 loss at Hershey made us take a look at ourselves. It was kind of the kick in the butt we needed. Now, we’re playing fairly well, but we have no illusions. Hershey is going to be our toughest game all year, and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.”
Against Donegal, the Cougars really came out hard. But it was a shot from long distance that got them on the board first, 9:36 into the match.
Off a direct restart from 56 yards away, Palmyra senior Nolan Ciesielka hit a perfectly placed ball that flew over Donegal goalie Neville Ncube’s head and below the crossbar.
“From here at midfield, we just want to put one on net and give our guys a chance,” said Wilver. We kind of make it an emphasis to jump on teams early. If we do that, we can set our style of play. I thought we did that tonight.
“I don’t know if it was our best, but we played pretty well,” added Wilver. “It’s always important to get that first goal, but I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping the pressure on them. I was very pleased with how we played. It was a complete-game effort.”
Some 3:32 later Braden Sunho made it 2-0 Palmyra with the first of his two tallies.
Accepting a feed from teammate Kasen Bixler, Sunho made a hard run down the right side of the field, then veered left. From there, Sunho hit a hard 30-yarder with his right foot, inside the short-side post.
“We’re a very skilled team, and we’re all very versatile,” said Wilver. “Braden is so good with the ball on his feet. We had others who did a good job of putting him in position to score goals. When you have good players who share the ball, it’s fun to watch.
“I thought that on a night like tonight, you didn’t want to play yourself and your opponent,” Wilver added. “We were fortunate to get off to a good start and settle things down early. Donegal plays pretty fast and they have the ability to pressure you. But I thought the game came to us a little bit.”
Four minutes before halftime, Sunho struck again to push the Cougars’ advantage to three goals.
This time, he was sent ahead by Andrew Bauer, and Sunho was able to get off a good hard shot on Ncube from in close. Ncube was up to the challenge, but Sunho stayed with the play, and going left from a hard angle, he knocked his own rebound into the net.
“We talked at halftime about not going out and packing the bus,” said Wilver. “That’s not us. Plus, it’s hard to change your style of play at this time of the season. We still wanted to pick our chances, but we stressed at halftime that we wanted to have a clean sheet.”
While Palmyra was much less dangerous during the second 40 minutes of action, the Cougars certainly didn’t go into a defensive shell. Palmyra senior goalkeeper Manny Rose logged three saves to register the shutout, as the Cougars out shot the Indians 14-6.
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