BY JEFF FALK
EXETER – It was a season filled with firsts, so it was somehow appropriately ended by two more firsts.
In its first trip to states, it was the first time the Palmyra boys’ lacrosse team ran into a team as good as Strath Haven.
On a moist Tuesday night at Exeter High School, during the opening round of the PIAA Class AA postseason, the most successful campaign in program history – as well as the finest in Lebanon County boys’ lacrosse history – concluded with the Cougars’ 15-9 loss to Strath Haven. On the heels of a fast start, the Panthers built a 14-4 lead early in the second half, before Palmyra went down swinging.
The setback was only the second of the season for the Cougars, but easily their most decisive. Palmyra, the champions of District Three, ended 21-2.
Entering the fray, the Cougars had outscored their opponents by a combined margin of 359-116, a total that included a 63-22 scoring differential during the District Three tournament.
Strath Haven, the third-place finisher out of District One,will carry a 15-7 overall mark into Saturday’s quarterfinal round of the state playoffs.
“They were definitely one of the top two or three teams we played this season,” said Palmyra head coach Dave Ondrusek of the Panthers. “Probably the best team we saw, although I hate taking anything away from Cumberland Valley. They were very well schooled. It’s hard because it’s a team we’ve never seen before. We tried to get scouting reports, but probably not enough to help us. But they’re a very good team.
“Probably the district championship was our biggest accomplishment,” continued Ondrusek. “It was the first time we made states. It was the second time we made districts. And it was the first time we played in the Mid-Penn championship game. It’s always sweeter when you bring home some hardware.”
After falling behind by ten goals three minutes into the second half, the Cougars certainly didn’t quit. But they didn’t seriously threaten the Panthers’ advantage either.
Kyle Nolen’s goal, off an assist from Ethan Gain, pulled the Cougars to within 14-8 and capped a run of four straight goals by Palmyra. It came with 8:14 remaining, but proved to be the final gasp of the Cougars’ historic year.
Sophomore Ryan Basinger had touched off the Palmyra outburst 3:17 into the second half with a great individual effort. Then the Cougars got goals 1:21 apart from Grant Haus, with a man advantage, and from Petey Robertson, on a hard shot from the right side, to get within seven goals of the Panthers.
“We’ve been down before. But we’re never out,” said Ondrusek. “Our guys are so resilient. We didn’t get back quickly enough. There wasn’t enough time. We were down ten goals, but so what. It’s an attitude.
“We started moving the ball better,” continued Ondrusek. “We started taking the ball where it needed to go. The guys got more enthused. At halftime it was like, ‘We’re not going to go down without a fight’.”
Strath Haven gained control of the contest with seven straight goals during a 7:33 span from the middle of the first period to early in the second quarter. It snapped a one-all draw and gave the Panthers a comfortable 8-1 advantage.
During the span, Palmyra experienced difficulties with turnovers, winning draws, generating offense and containing Strath Haven junior midfielder Jeffrey Conner.
“We started out a little slow,” said Ondrusek. “We dug ourselves a little hole, but the boys came back. We didn’t quit out there.
“They (the Panthers) moved the ball well,” added Ondrusek. “They caught us in a position where we weren’t focused enough on what they were doing.”
The Cougars finally stemmed Strath Haven’s first-half momentum 7:40 before the break, on a Robertson back-hander that made it 8-2. Three minutes later, teammate Nate Hawkins drew Palmyra a goal closer with an unassisted tally.
Strath Haven led 11-3 at the break, but Robertson scored 43 seconds into the second half.
“You can’t take anything away from Strath Haven,” said Ondrusek. “They’re a well-coached team. They’re athletic. They’re good ball players. We made some mental mistakes, but the boys turned things around. We needed one more half.
“I would say District One is ahead of District Three,” Ondrusek added. “We gave them (the Panthers) a run for their money. One, two three in District One are pretty much the same across the board.”
Strath Haven drew first blood, 3:05 in, on a collaboration between Conner and Tyler Fink. But the Cougars answered two minutes later, courtesy of an unassisted goal by Ethan Gains,from the middle of the field.
“You always try to put your best thought forward,” said Ondrusek. “Our goals were to win a league championship, win a district championship and win a state championship. We achieved one of those goals. I was impressed by how this team set goals and tried to reach them. You don’t go in it to be second.
“I can speak enough about this team and what they accomplished,” continued Ondrusek. “I told these guys it’s not about me. I equated it to an orchestra. An orchestra sounds great because of great musicians. I was just the conductor.”
In the final tally, Palmyra out shot Strath Haven 34-26, thanks to a 25-9 advantage in the second half. Panther goalie Vincey Palermo was credited with four first-half saves, some of which were of the spectacular variety.
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|4:15 PM||W 17-4|
|4:15 PM||W 19-1|
|4:15 PM||W 19-5|
|6:15 PM||W 15-8|
|4:15 PM||W 14-7|
|4:15 PM||W 19-3|
|4:30 PM||W 19-7|
|4:00 PM||W 11-6|
|7:00 PM||W 17-8|
|4:15 PM||W 19-0|
|4:15 PM||W 14-6|
|4:15 PM||L 8-7|
|4:15 PM||W 19-7|
|6:00 PM||W 12-4|
|4:00 PM||W 19-3|
|6:45 PM||W 17-3|
|7:00 PM||W 8-7|
|7:00 PM||W 19-5|
|7:00 PM||W 14-3|
|7:00 PM||W 21-6|
|5:00 PM||W 9-8|
|8:00 PM||Exeter Twp. High School|