BY JEFF FALK
HUMMELSTOWN – This concept of excellence that the Palmyra field hockey team is currently pursuing is very hard to define, and very hard to describe.
It goes beyond anyone wanting to be the best she can be for any individual purpose. What each member is hoping to discover is exactly how personal excellence will collectively manifest itself through the team’s performance.
It is an inward pursuit not affected by outside stimuli like goals, accolades or championships.
On Tuesday night at Lower Dauphin Middle School, the latest result of the Cougars’ pursuit was a 4-1 triumph over Lancaster Mennonite, in a semifinal contest of the District Three Class AA playoffs. What seemed more important than advancing to another district final to Palmyra was that it got a closer glimpse of how good a team it can possibly be.
For us outsiders looking in, Palmyra dominated the team across from it – on this night the Blazers – for most of the evening. After spinning its wheels by its high standards in the first half, Palmyra put the outcome to bed with a pair of goals 35 seconds apart early in the second half.
But perhaps the best example of the Cougars’ dominance was the fact that they led 4-0 before relinquishing their first shot on goal. Lancaster Mennonite spoiled the shutout bid of Cougar goalie Nicole Berger by scoring a goal with 4:51 remaining.
The next personal/team challenges for top-seeded Palmyra, now 20-1, will come on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Henry Hershey Field on the campus of Milton Hershey School, in the form of the District Three Class AA championship game. Providing the resistance will be third-seeded Oley Valley, which downed Boiling Springs 2-1 in the bracket’s other semi.
Lancaster Mennonite, the fourth-seed in the tournament, dropped to 17-5 on the year.
“We’ve been so excited for this,” said Palmyra head coach Kristi Costello. “Once we moved past the Mid-Penn (conference regular season), we’ve really focused on districts. Anything can happen and sometimes it takes a little luck.
“But we have an older team and we’ve been very focused,” continued Costello. “We’re not looking long-term. We’re looking at each game as an opportunity. We feel fortunate just to be able to play for a district championship.”
While Lancaster Mennonite hadn’t even seriously penetrated Cougar territory during the first half, Palmyra found itself clinging to a 1-0 advantage early in the second stanza. That was until Megan Miller and Katie Dembrowski clicked on a corner play at the 6:15 mark.
Accepting a perfectly placed and paced feed from Dembrowski, Miller ripped a blast from the left wing that beat Blazer netminder Kelsey Troyer to the short side.
“I think it finally came together for us in the second half,” said Costello. “Lancaster Mennonite was doing a good job of building a wall. I told the girls, ‘we’ve got to get back to our two-touch passing’. Our ball speed is very good. We have a lot of girls who are fit and fast.
“They (Miller and Dembrowski) generate so much pressure,” Costello continued. “And they work very well together.”
That Dembrowski-to-Miller magic reared its head again, 8:54 into the second half, only in a different fashion. Dembrowski carried the ball hard to the Lancaster Mennonite end line, then shuffled a cross to Miller, who wristed the ball to the top part of the Blazer cage for a 3-0 advantage.
Less than half a minute later, Kiley Gallagher combined with Erin Huffman for Palmyra’s fourth goal. From the same right baseline, Gallagher found Huffman at the near post, and Huffman one-timed it home.
“On the third goal, the second one that Megan scored, Katie had some great stick skills,” said Costello. “And Megan had a nice high shot into the net. The corner execution on our second goal was phenomenal. It was text-book execution. These girls make all the goals memorable.
“I was not pleased with the way we played in the first half,” added Costello. “We weren’t connecting. We weren’t using our speed. In the second half we made some adjustments and we did a much better job.”
Gallagher had netted Palmyra’s first tally 13:10 into the game on individual desire.
Off an extended corner attack, the Cougars unleashed a good shot on goal that Troyer was able to make the save on. But Gallagher was there to ram the rebound into the cage.
“They’re always a strong program,” said Costello, of a Blazer program that was the beast of the District Three Class AA tournament before her’s was. “When I played, we matched up with them a lot. They’re always a good team. They’re well-coached. Their girls are skilled and start playing hockey at a young age, like we do.’
The final stat sheet saw Palmyra out shoot Lancaster Mennonite 15-2. The Cougars took 13 corners and did not surrender a single one.