PALMYRA – It is a concept which people have chased – and one which has subsequently eluded them – since the beginning of time. It is so mysterious that even the possibility of it is rarely spoken of or thought of.
But by being the best it can possibly be, the Palmyra girls’ basketball team is daring to define perfection in its own way, and threatening to put its own human spin on it.
The Cougars are on the brink of perfection, after Friday night’s 64-41 home win over Trinity. Using a devastating 21-4 run through the second quarter, the Cougars shrugged off a slow start and then methodically pull away from the Shamrocks in the second half.
The victory was Palmyra’s 21st straight to begin the season. The Cougars, 21-0 and 15-0 in the Keystone Division of the Mid-Penn Conference, can conclude a perfect regular-season campaign – and wrap up their third straight division championship – with a win at Hershey on Monday night.
Should they pull it off, it will be the second Cougar team coached by Ron Berman to run the regular-season gamut.
Palmyra had defeated the same Trinity outfit 64-58 in Shiremanstown on Jan. 7. The loss dropped the Shamrocks to 11-10 overall and 9-6 in the Keystone.
“No, no,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman when asked if going undefeated was ever among his club’s lofty preseason goals. “We do have ten goals, and we’ve achieved a bunch of them already. But we never thought about anything like that. At no point did we ever anticipate this. We lost three starters, and we often talk about addition by subtraction. Sometimes it causes different players to pick it up and they were forced to do a lot more. Players are getting the reps in practice they wouldn’t have.
“I’ve never, never mentioned to the girls about being undefeated,” Berman added. “Now, at some point did the girls pick up on it? Absolutely. It was never a goal to put it out there. They know the value of winning on Monday night. They’d like to win the championship by themselves.”
“I don’t think originally it was a team goal,” said Cougar junior catalyst Carly Richardson. “But we’re not going to get out worked. So far we’ve been able to get our act together for every single game. We just kept winning. We’re not losing. So why not go for it? Why not make some history at Palmyra?
“Perfect is synonymous with excellence,” Richardson continued. “Here we always strive for excellence. 22-0 is a perfect season. But we didn’t play perfectly every game.”
And the Cougars were far from perfect in the opening stanza, while falling into a 14-7 hole. But by helping and switching on defense and by cherishing the ball and making decisive decisions with it, Palmyra began to hit its stride late in the period.
That momentum spilled over into the second quarter in the form of three-pointers from Richardson and Gabi Gundermann, a bucket from Kristen Smoluk and two charity tosses from Maria Tukis. And all of a sudden, Palmyra was sitting on a 23-18 cushion, an advantage it would never relinquish.
“I thought defensively, the first quarter was very disappointing,” said Berman. “We didn’t get control of the ball and then we were very indecisive. We weren’t as aggressive defensively as we usually are.
“Trinity’s a very good team, a real serious district contender,” Berman added. “They have a lot of pieces. For us to separate and beat them, I was particularly pleased with the way we played. The first game with them went down to the wire. They give us some real match-up problems. For us to be able to hold them to the points we did was a real accomplishment. I knew we could score. We got the lead off man (-to-man) and then took them out of their zone. We’ve got a lot of girls who can shoot the ball.”
“Obviously we started a little slow,” said Richardson. “Trinity did a good job of jumping on us. But coach called a timeout, and everyone started making plays, we got offense from our defense and we were pretty much golden from there.
“Our first goal is to play hard, play smart, play together and have fun,” Richardson continued. “All 21 games we’ve been able to accomplish that. Our goal is to win every game we get into.”
Palmyra held Trinity without a point for the final 4:36 of the first half to take a 34-20 lead to the intermission. The Cougars’ closing 11-0 run featured five points from Kait Carmo, a lay-in from Richardson, a bucket by Katie McClellan and lay-up from Smoluk.
“It was a great second quarter,” said Berman. “I can’t remember a particular play that got us going. We got a couple of turnovers, we got a couple of lay-ups and turned the temp of the game up.
“One of the things we’ve had success with is we do not treat the Trinity game any differently than the Bishop McDevitt game,” Berman continued. “We do exactly the same things ever game. We never overlook a team and we never try to put more emphasis on a game. Now, and can you be up for 21, 22 games? You have to be a little lucky. You’ve got to play good when you need to play good, and sometimes you’ve got to play good enough.”
“One of the things that makes our team so special is we have so many outstanding players,” said Richardson. “Katie Dembrowski and Maria Tukis come off our bench and they’re two of the most athletic girls in our school.”
Richardson paced the Palmyra attack with 17 points, Gundermann nailed four treys and contributed 14 points and senior Carmo popped for ten. In all, the Cougars drained eight three-point baskets.
“Tonight was important because we continued our winning streak,” said Berman. “We cinched at least a co-championship. For the seniors, that would be three Keystone titles. Now Hershey has to beat us twice (to qualify for the Mid-Penn Conference playoffs). It gives us a little bit of a cushion.
“We’ve done it (gone undefeated in the regular season) one other time,” added Berman. “It’s really hard to do. It’s a tribute to this group of kids. This is a really good group of athletes, but we’re not skilled basketball players. ‘Play hard. Play smart. Play together. And have fun.’ This team has embraced that philosophy more than any other team I’ve ever had.”
“It was important because we kept our perfect streak going,” said Richardson. “And we guaranteed ourselves a part of the division. Trinity is a great team, a talented team. Being able to play well against a team like that, it’s a great tribute to how hard we play.”
In the third quarter, the Cougars turned their comfortable lead into a rout. Palmyra outscored Trinity 13-4 over the final 4;18 of the stanza to lengthen a 43-26 margin to 56-30.
And when Tukis and Richardson rattled home charity tosses to open the final period, Palmyra’s lead reached 29 points.
“Some of our freshmen have really improved,” said Berman. “That’s important because that’s who we’re practicing against. That development of the younger group gives you the base that makes the varsity players better. We also have three seniors who don’t play much. But they work hard in practice. They’re totally committed to the team.”
And practice does make perfect.