BY JEFF FALK
NEW PARIS – The stakes keep getting higher. The competition keeps getting tougher. And the adversity continues to flow.
Yet in the face of every challenge, the Cougars just keep getting better and better.
But the real winners are the followers of the Palmyra girls’ basketball team, the ones who have always wondered about how good these Cougars can be.
On Saturday afternoon at Chestnut Ridge High School, Palmyra’s surprising run at unrealized potential – both recent and not so recent – picked up speed, as the Cougars bumped Elizabeth Forward 51-44, in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs. Buoyed by three technical fouls called against Elizabeth Forward, the Cougars overcame the loss of leading scorer Kristen Smoluk to injury two minutes in by playing fierce defense, making their free throws and consistently scoring the ball, thanks to the ever improving play of junior point guard Katie Dembrowski.
After relinquishing all but three of a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter, Palmyra put away the District Seven representative with a key steal by Carly Richardson with 51 seconds left and four-of-six subsequent free throwing. A pair from Richardson with 42 seconds remaining pushed Palmyra’s lead to 49-44, and a couple more from teammate Katy McClellan in the final 29 ticks proved to be nails for the coffin.
As one of the four Class AAA teams in the state still standing, Palmyra moved to 25-4 and into the semifinals of the PIAA postseason with its fifth straight playoff win. The Cougars, the fifth-place finishers out of District Three, will play District Seven champion Blackhawk, which edged Hickory 24-22, on Tuesday at a site and time to be announced.
Elizabeth Forward, the fourth-place finisher out of District Seven, finished its year at 22-5.
“I’ve never had a team that has experienced so much adversity,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “Two minutes into the game, we lose our leading scorer. But the thing with adversity is that if you stay together, you get more players who have played in pressure times. I thought Carly Richardson really stepped up for us. Obviously it was exciting.
“I told the girls, ‘One more time,'” Berman added. “‘We can do this’, even when Kristen Smoluk went down and had to be taken to the hospital. We talked about being in the game. That’s been our focus, ‘let’s stay in the game into the fourth quarter.’ There were a lot of fouls called and it was so physical out there. But the kids showed toughness unlike any they’ve shown over the last two years.”
“That was a really fun game,” said Dembrowski, who controlled the tempo with her ball handling, her decision making and her unselfishness. “We played awesome. We all went 100 percent. But that’s what we do every game.”
Palmyra appeared to take control of the outcome with a 17-8 run through the third stanza. Dembrowski nailed a key trey in the flurry, and the Cougars ended the stanza on an 8-2 burst that gave them a 42-30 bulge.
Included in that spurt were two technical fouls called on the Elizabeth Forward bench, six points from Richardson and a driving lay-in by Maria Tukis that beat the buzzer.
But the Warriors used some double-teaming pressure defense to notch the first six points of the final period, and climb to within 42-36.
“I thought on the first one, he was trying to fire up his kids,” said Berman of the technical called on Warrior head coach Sam Kosanovich late in the first half. “And then after that, I’m not sure what he was doing. But yeah, I’ll take six free throws, absolutely.
“But we didn’t take advantage after the technicals,” continued Berman. “I thought they took us out of our flow. But the bottom line was they got their first two coaches off the bench.”
“When Kristen (Smoluk) went down – I know it was her shoulder – that kind of motivated us,” said Dembrowski. “She said, ‘Go win the game’. We wanted to get it for her, for ourselves and for our coaches.
“Right now the goal is to just keep winning,” added Dembrowski. “We made it this far, why not? We just have to stick together and play good Cougar basketball.”
The Cougars ended the half pretty much the same way they did the the third quarter – with five straight points and a 25-22 lead. Fueled by Elizabeth Forward’s first technical foul, Richardson drained a pair of foul shots, while teammates Tukis, Josie Stovall and Kelsey McNamara each added a single ‘freebie’.
“I still don’t think Carly’s 100 percent, but she’s getting close,” said Berman. “I thought she did a great job of rebounding. It’s been so frustrating how things have gone for Carly this year. Tonight at times, they (the Warriors) played a box-and-one on her.”
“Adversity, finding ways to overcome it, is making us stronger,” said Richardson. “We’re just staying together and having everyone else do a little more.”
Richardson tallied 11 of her game-high 17 points at the foul stripe and pulled down 12 caroms, while sophomore Josie Stovall registered 14 points and hauled in 11 boards. Palmyra out rebounded Elizabeth Forward 37-34 and outscored it 20-7 at the free throw line.
“I’ve been around better all-around players, but she’s the best point guard I’ve ever had,” said Berman of Dembrowski. “She’s the best point guard who plays four months out of the year I’ve ever seen. She has amazing, amazing court vision. She makes everybody better.
“Josie (Stovall) is such an athlete, such a quick jumper,” continued Berman. “She’s a volleyball player first. When she shows up (for basketball), she really does well.”
“I probably started playing better at the end of districts,” said Dembrowski. “At the beginning of the season I was hurt. But now I’m gelling with my teammates.
“At the beginning of the season, we were hoping to improve and taking one game at a time,” added Dembrowski. “We’re excited to be here. But we never thought we couldn’t get here.”
Before the opening stanza ended in a ten-all deadlock, Palmyra had jumped out to a 5-0 lead on a Stovall three-pointer and two McClellan foul shots. Then during a back-and-forth second quarter, Stovall gave the Cougars a 16-15 edge with a jump hook, and a 20-19 lead with an inside move.
“We lost to West Perry, or West Perry beat us, and they (his players) decided they didn’t want the season to end,” said Berman of a quarterfinal loss to the eventual District Three champion. “After the West Perry game, we really became focused, and worked hard. One of the nice things is, if you get into the postseason, you get more practice time for the underclassmen.”
“In the West Perry game, rebounding was an issue,” said Dembrowski. “Now we’ve been really working on our rebounding. It’s been a point of emphasis.
“Today, I thought our help defense was really a key, and not letting them drive on us,” Dembrowski continued. “That and bringing the ball up and keeping our composure.”
“In these past two weeks, we realized how good we can be,” said Richardson. “On any night, we can have any player step up.”