BY JEFF FALK
Is this current version the best Palmyra girls’ basketball squad never to have won anything? No. These Cougars have become the best team they can be, despite the fact that they haven’t won anything.
The 2013-14 campaign has been a different, sort of strange kind of trip for the Cougars. But if there has been one common theme throughout for Palmyra it’s ‘overcoming adversity’.
Whether it’s been overcoming unrealistic expectations caused by last season’s success or recovering from a slew of injuries which has stunted their growth, the Cougars have yet to reach their full potential. But in that vein, there are two things to keep in mind: Palmyra is currently playing its best basketball of the year, and the season isn’t quite over yet.
“It’s just been that kind of year for us,” said Palmyra head coach Ron Berman. “Some years, some of those things aren’t factors. But we haven’t gotten a great flow going. Today we had our 58th practice of the season, and we’ve had, what I consider, our top eight players together for three of them.
“To me, while we’ve had adversity to overcome, we haven’t begun to reach our full potential,” continued Berman. “For the last week and a half, we’ve been the best Palmyra team we’ve been all year. We’ve had three quality (postseason) wins, some have come from playing ahead and some have come from playing from behind. Right now we are playing our best basketball. Is that good enough for the state tournament? I’m not sure.”
One thing that no one will ever be able to take away from the Cougars is the fact that they have distinguished themselves as one of the top 16 Class AAA teams in Pennsylvania. Palmyra earned that distinction on Saturday, with a 49-40 win over Susquehannock in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs.
A victory over Merion Mercy on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Reading High’s Geigle Complex would make this Palmyra team the first in 25 years to reach the second round of the state postseason, an accomplishment not even last season’s 29-1 club was able to achieve.
“I think it affected the kids more than it affected the coaches,” said Berman of last season’s run at perfection. “When we lost to Hershey, it was like ‘we couldn’t have a perfect season.’ I think the kids felt the pressure, the peer pressure. But in reverse, I think the kids know last year’s team lost in the second round of states, and they want to be the team that gets to the third round. There was a certain pressure that came from last year. Do we refer to last year? Yeah, but in terms of statistics, not wins.
“We have a sheet of ten goals, and last year was the first time we hit all ten,” added Berman. “Seven are measurable goals and the other three are less tangible. We are probably going to hit eight-and-a-half out of ten this year. One of our goals is to win a major championship, and with that goal we might come up a little short. We wanted to win 20 games, and we’ve won 23. Measurably, it’s been an extremely good season, except we can’t say, ‘we won this’. It’s been a very good season in terms of making it to the things we wanted to. And we’re getting better. We have everyday.”
Over the years, the Cougars have become as synonymous with March as St. Patrick’s Day. They have qualified for the state playoffs ten times over the last 12 seasons, and the current group of seniors and juniors are making their third straight appearance in the PIAA tournament.
“We never really talked about how special it is to get to states,” said Berman. “I think our kids expect to get to states. They’ve been there before. They’re happy about it. But they just decided they didn’t want the season to end. That loss (to eventual champion West Perry in the District Three quarterfinals) motivated them. Each one is a new tournament, but they wanted to get into the dance.
“When Hershey came to our gym (last regular season game) and trounced us, it was an eye-opening experience,” continued Berman. “Hershey just took us apart. It wasn’t a game. If there was any game which opened our eyes, it was that one. It just said to the kids, ‘everyone wants to beat us, and if we don’t play well, we’re going to get beat’. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, but maybe we just weren’t prepared mentally.”
But what that loss did do for the Cougars is give them valuable practice time in the gym with Berman, a teacher first and a coach second. And it also gave them time to be together, something that injuries had taken away from them previously.
At one time or the other over the last six months, five of Palmyra’s top eight players have been afflicted with some type of injury or another.
“We’ve just had a lot of things we’ve had to overcome,” said Berman. “This week, we really needed some practice time. One of the best things that happened to us is that we didn’t win the division (Keystone of the Mid-Penn Conference). We really grew from the end of the regular season to the beginning of districts. We’d like to throw one game out the window (the loss to West Perry). But we really, really played well the last three weeks.
“Personally, I think we’ve had a great season,” continued Berman. “For me, the challenge of coaching hasn’t always been about the final record, but seeing where you’ve gone from Point A to Point B. At the beginning of the year, people thought we’d be good because we had a lot of key components back. But we also lost five key seniors.”
Palmyra has always been athletic, fundamentally sound and wildly competitive. When the Cougars have struggled this season, it’s been on the offensive end, with its execution.
“I think offense is certainly our weak point,” said Berman. “Fourteen years ago, we figured out at Palmyra, the best thing we can hope for is getting athletes who enjoy basketball. We’re not going to get a lot of basketball players. That has become our focus, and realizing that the only way for us to be competitive is to be defensive-oriented. Every one of our kids is a multi-sport athlete except Carly Richardson, who has focused on basketball the last couple of years.
“Not many of our girls would list basketball as their favorite sport,” added Berman. “To be good offensively, you have to put the time in and work on your game. We preach defense, rebounding and not turning the ball over. We’re 16 weeks in, and some of our players are getting better offensively. Because of her injury, (point guard) Katie Dembrowski is seven weeks into her season. She’s no longer a field hockey player playing basketball. She’s a basketball player. Offensively, we’re just getting better. We’re executing. We’re moving the ball better.”