BY JEFF FALK
PALMYRA – The scene was somewhat surreal. In a foggy haze, young warriors stumbled around the midfield turf of still-lit Buck Swank Stadium seeking the true meaning of exactly what had transpired just moments earlier.
Then the emotions came pouring out. Despair. Satisfaction. Joy. Sadness. Sentimentality.
With the rest of the team and coaches in the locker room, head coach Chris Pope had given his 12th-graders as much time as they wanted on their home football field. Given everything those young men had given to the program – perhaps the least of which was their time – it seemed it was the least that Pope could do.
On a crisp Friday evening that doubled as Senior Night, Palmyra celebrated the careers of a dozen or so 12th-graders in front of the home fans one last time, despite a 55-21 setback to a talented East Pennsboro squad. Behind four rushing touchdowns from super-back Onasis Neeley, the Panthers opened a 13-point lead at the intermission, then pulled away in the second half.
In addition to being the Cougars’ final home game of the season, the outcome was significant in that it pretty much dashed their hopes of qualifying for the District Three Class AAAAA playoffs. Palmyra, which was 12th in the latest district power rankings, endured its third straight setback, after surprisingly opening the campaign with five consecutive wins.
East Pennsboro moved to 6-2 on the year and 3-2 in the Capital Division of the Mid-Penn Conference. The Cougars, who were without the services of senior quarterback Grant Haus because of family obligations, are now 2-3 in the division.
“In any given year, it’s important to have games with playoff implications,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pope. “High school football is a special thing. It was our last home game of the year. For our seniors, it was the first of many lasts.
“It matters how you finish,” continued Pope. “It’s pretty sure that the playoff situation is done for us. In life, just like in football, it matters how you finish. Hopefully we can get back on the winning track.”
As they have at time this season, the Cougars started slowly, as East Pennsboro scored on its initial two possessions to grab a 13-0 lead.
Palmyra steadied itself a bit, getting a brilliant 25-yard scoring hook-up between quarterback Stephen Lyons and receiver Kasey Shugart in the left-corner of the end zone, late in the second quarter. Shugart wrestled a sure interception away from a Panther defender to cap an eight-play, 67-yard Palmyra possession.
But East Pennsboro answered with Neely’s second touchdown, a 20-yard jaunt to pay-dirt a mere 33 seconds later, to re-extend its lead to 20-7. And when Neely scored again 1:33 into the second half, the Panthers had themselves a 27-7 cushion.
“He’s a really good running back,” said Pope of Neely. “What’s impressive is how fast he hits the hole. You have to have a perfect angle to get to him. Once he gets into the open field, it’s going to be a problem.
“Any time in any game, you can look back at things you can do better,” added Pope. “They’re (the Panthers) a good football team. Tonight it just went their way.”
Courtesy of a Cougar fumble, East Pennsboro scored twice in a 1:55 span of the middle of the opening quarter to take that 13-0 lead.
First, the Panthers drove their first possession 71 yards in seven plays to get Neely’s 27-yard touchdown run. Then Trent Friest got into the act with a one-yard TD plunge.
“I don’t feel like we gave up in any regard,” said Pope. “I respect that about this football team.
“You’ve got to give Stevie (Lyons) credit,” Pope continued. “He did a really great job filling in. He moved the football. He was pretty efficient in the passing game. I thought he did a tremendous job. I thought our team really rallied around him.”
Down 34-7 late in the third quarter, Cougar Eddie Cannon scored from 27 yards away to give the home side life. Cannon carried five times on the six-play, 60-yard possession.
On the first play of the final period, Lyons hit Sean Carter with a 45-yard scoring strike to pull Palmyra to within 41-21 of the lead.
“When you look at our schedule, I thought we hit the toughest part of it,” said Pope. “These (East Pennsboro, Steel-High and Middletown) are three really good football teams. You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders. We’ve been playing pretty good football.”
Behind Neely’s 24 carries and 191 yards, East Pennsboro out gained Palmyra 432 total yards to 327. The Cougars lost three fumbles.
For Palmyra, Cannon gained 123 yards on 20 rushing attempts. Lyons finished 17-for-29 for 171 passing yards.
“I thought our possibility of making districts was better than last year,” said Pope, referring to his team’s near-miss in 2016. “It would’ve been a possibility. This game had playoff implications. This game had that double importance of also being our last home game.”
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2017 Palmyra Football Results
|7:00 PM||W 24-21|
|7:00 PM||W 28-24|
|7:00 PM||W 35-7|
|7:00 PM||W 28-14|
|7:00 PM||W 24-6|
|7:30 PM||L 10-17|
|7:30 PM||L 14-24|
|7:00 PM||Palmyra High School|
|7:00 PM||Trinity High School|
|7:00 PM||Milton Hershey School|
Capital Division Standings
PIAA District Three
Class AAAAA Power Rankings