BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – They’ve been at it since before the Dog Days of August. Their peers have moved on to the pursuits of the next sports season.
And the practices? Well, they’re not only mundane and repetitious, they’re conducted in the dark, and the falling temperatures of mid-November.
But there’s something pushing, driving, motivating the Palmyra field hockey team right now. Where it originates is from within, and it seems to be related more to a fear of failure than any desire to succeed.
On a windy Saturday afternoon at Milton Hershey School’s Henry Hershey Field, the Cougars scored their most impressive of what is unfolding as a spectacular season, given the opponent, what was at stake and the way it was accomplished. No one beats Lower Dauphin 3-0 in the quarterfinal round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs. Not even Palmyra.
But that’s exactly what the Cougars pulled off yesterday, thanks to two early goals 3:24 apart, a swarming team defense that protected goalkeeper Cheyenne Sprecher like she was a younger sibling and an unwavering resolve not to take losing as a result. 3-0? It wasn’t that close.
Up next for the District Three champion Cougars, now 24-2, is Tuesday’s state semifinal, versus Downingtown East, at a site and time to be announced. Lower Dauphin, the third-place finisher out of District Three, concluded its campaign at 19-4-1.
While defeating Lower Dauphin three times in a season is certainly no small feat, the Cougars have their eyes on even more elusive goals. The victory was Palmyra’s 16th straight overall.
But even more impressive is the fact that the Cougars have not been defeated in 12 consecutive playoff contests, dating back to last season’s District Three Class AAA championship game loss to – you guessed it – Lower Dauphin. Of course, among those results was Palmyra’s now infamous 1-1 tie with Penn Manor, in the 2014 PIAA Class AAA title bout.
“If you look at the last four years, it’s kind of built up to this,” said Palmyra head coach Kristi Costello. “We’ve shared some things. They’re (her players) tired of being second. They’re just trying to do the best we can.
“Of course there’s pressure,” continued Costello. “When you’re playing in the state tournament there’s pressure, because if you don’t win you go home. They want to continue to play, and they want to continue to play with each other.”
The Cougars were dangerous in the circle all afternoon. But what set the tone for the result was what has become prolific senior Kiley Gallagher’s signature strike – the reverse shot.
A mere 7:10 into the contest, Gallagher scooped up an unspoken-for ball in the Palmyra attack zone. Going left, Gallagher drilled a reverse drive that beat Lower Dauphin net-minder Maddie Lilliock high to the far side.
“It’s definitely a newer skill,” said Costello of the reverse shot. “Players are getting much better at it. And Kiley is very good at it. But I tell them (her players) not to rely on it, to look for their forehands. But they (the Falcons) gave it to her, she took it and she scored. It’s hard to defend because when you set the ball up, you’re back is to the keeper and she’s not exactly sure where the ball is going to go.
“Kiley has that ability,” added Costello. “She and Erin (Huffman) have perfected it.”
Huffman gave Palmyra a 2-0 lead with 19:26 of the first half remaining. But she scored in a more conventional method.
Huffman won a ball from two Falcon defenders in the right corner of the field. She dribbled along the baseline, then got off a quick forehand from a hard angle that found the Lower Dauphin cage to the far side.
“We were ready to play,” said Costello. “Two of our seniors put them in. They didn’t want our season to end today. I thought our players played together.
“I had a lot of favorite moments,” Costello continued. “The goals were brilliant in different ways. Our defense was strong, just the composure they had. They’ve been working hard to get better.”
Instead of resting on their laurels, the Cougars continued to search for the tally that would put their rival away. Palmyra found it 9:25 into the second half, again courtesy of some superior stick skills, this time by Alexis Smith.
Gallagher initiated the play by quickly flipping a ball on to Lilliock. When the ball popped up, Smith was there to knock it out of mid air and into the back of the Falcon goal.
“We just said, ‘Don’t play not to lose. Continue to attack,'” said Costello of her side’s two-goal cushion. “Till the end, we were trying to score. We kept going. I said after the district championship game that we’re still hungry, and I didn’t want to sound cocky. But we’re hungry for a state gold, and not to share it. I just don’t want to peak too early. Each game in the state tournament is a different entity.
“We stressed taking care of business,” Costello added. “And taking advantage of opportunities. The early goals gave us energy.”
Palmyra was on top of its defensive game as well. The Cougars didn’t surrender a penalty corner until 7:30 of the first half remained, or a shot until 3:15 later.
The playoff shutout was Sprecher and her defenders’ third straight. The Cougars have limited their opponents to a paltry total of 12 goals all season.
“Initially our reaction was, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to play Lower Dauphin again,'” said Costello. “But then on Wednesday at practice we started to look at it like ‘We’re getting another opportunity to play Lower Dauphin and to get better’.
“That’s (the feeling of beating the Falcons three times in one season) really hard to sum up,” continued Costello. “This was an amazing game. I think our seniors and upperclassmen have been leading us. That first loss to them really hurt. But having an opportunity to play them four times in a season gives you a chance to get better.”
When the dust had settled, Palmyra held a 10-3 advantage in shots and a 9-1 margin in penalty corners.
“Lower Dauphin is obviously a great team,” said Costello. “They’re so well-coached. My job is to throw something at them that they haven’t seen from us before. We were trying to stop them from going down the right side of the field. At this point of the season, it’s more tactical because skills are really hard to improve.”
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2015 Palmyra Field Hockey Results
|4:00 PM||W 3-1|
|4:00 PM||W 8-0|
|3:00 PM||W 1-0|
|4:00 PM||W 3-1|
|4:00 PM||W 9-0|
|4:00 PM||W 10-0|
|7:00 PM||L 2-3|
|4:00 PM||W 4-0|
|9:00 AM||W 3-2|
|10:00 AM||L 1-2|
|4:00 PM||W 6-0|
|4:00 PM||W 7-0|
|4:00 PM||W 2-0|
|1:45 PM||W 1-0|
|4:00 PM||W 5-0|
|6:30 PM||W 5-0|
|6:30 PM||W 1-0|
|6:30 PM||W 10-1|
|5:00 PM||W 8-0|
|7:00 PM||W 2-1|
|7:00 PM||W 6-0|
|3:00 PM||W 3-0|
|5:00 PM||W 2-1|
|3:00 PM||W 1-0|
@Owen J. Roberts
|6:00 PM||W 2-0|
|12:00 PM||W 3-0|
Palmyra’s Championship History Since 1998
Capital Division Champions of the Mid-Penn Conference: 2001 – 2009
Keystone Division CO-Champions of the Mid-Penn Conference: 2013, 2014; 2015
Keystone Division Co-Champions: 2013, 2014
Keystone Division CHAMPIONS: 2015
Mid-Penn Conference Champions: 2009, 2015
District III AA Champions: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2013
District III AAA Champions: 1998, 2015
Pa State AA Champions: 2005
Pa State AAA Co-Champions: 2014
Pa State AA Runner-Up: 2007