HUMMELSTOWN - It's been proven time and again that elite athletes, and teams, have the uncanny ability to raise their level of play to a sky-high altitude when it matters most.
For much of the second half of Tuesday's District Three Class AA semifinal battle with Lancaster Mennonite, the Palmyra field hockey team was hanging out in the stratosphere somewhere.
Nursing a 1-0 lead early in the second half, the top-seeded, now 20-1 Cougars quickly erupted for three goals in a scintillating span of 4:14 on the way to a wildly-impressive 4-1 drubbing of a quality Mennonite squad under the lights at Lower Dauphin Middle School.
Despite dominating the Blazers (17-5) throughout the first half and into the early stages of the second, Palmyra's goal of a seventh district championship was still in doubt until midfield catalysts Megan Miller and Katie Dembrowski teamed up for goals at 23:45 and 20:06, and Erin Huffman completed the trifecta by swatting home a gorgeous Kiley Gallagher feed with 19:31 to play.
Boom! Game over, just like that, and on to Saturday's title game opposite Oley Valley, a 2-1 winner over Boiling Springs in the first semifinal at LD on Tuesday. The Class AA championship clash of perennial powers is set for 1 p.m. at Milton Hershey School's Henry Hershey Field.
The air space around Milton Hershey may have to be cleared Saturday if Palmyra turns in another performance like Tuesday's early second-half gem.
"I think it finally came together for us in the second half," Palmyra coach Kristi Costello said, in something of an understatement. "We were having a hard time stringing together passes (in the first half), and Mennonite was doing a good job of building a wall (defensively) so we couldn't generate the kind of attack we normally do. But in the second half we got back to our two-touch passing and had the ball moving. That's where we generated our goals from."
And because they did, the Cougars will finally have the opportunity for their heart's desire -- a shot at a championship. They missed out on their first chance when the Mid-Penn Conference playoffs were abruptly cancelled a few weeks back, and have been fairly foaming at the mouth for another ever since.
"It's what we've been working for all year," said senior midfielder Miller, a sophomore starter on Palmyra's last district title team in 2011. "We have such a great team this year, and the seniors haven't been there since sophomore year, so it's good to be back. It's been our goal all season.
"We were all kind of upset about Mid-Penns, but it happens. We just gotta make the most of everything."
The Cougars were certainly opportunistic Tuesday, including on their first goal, which came when Gallagher knocked in a rebound of a shot off the pads of Mennonite goalie Kelsey Troyer with 16:50 left in the half.
But despite outshooting the Blazers 8-1 before the break -- and holding them without a corner for the entire game -- Palmyra could enjoy only a one-goal lead and seemed headed for a tense struggle after intermission.
And then, suddenly, the game was over.
First came a Miller blast off a corner that Dembrowski set up at 23:45. Then, 3:39 later, Miller finished off another Dembrowski feed to make it 3-0, and before Mennonite could get the license plate number Huffman one-timed Gallagher's perfect cross from the right side into the cage at 19:31.
"We have a lot of players that are very fast and very fit, and I think that starts to wear on teams sometimes," Costello said of the decisive outburst. "We were able to kinda hang in there, and Lancaster Mennonite was doing a great job hanging with us. And then we were able to get a little bit more there in the second half."
That Miller and Dembrowski, two-thirds of a skilled and speedy trio of midfield catalysts along with Kendall Kreider, were able to break the game open was hardly a surprise.
"They just generate so much attack, and they work so well together," Costello said of the two. "And tonight I think it showed with the assists and the goals they scored together."
"I'm not sure how it happened, we just kinda connected," Miller said, with a smile. "It was great, I love it. I think Katie and I work very well together. We always seem to find each other."
There's been a lot of that going around for the Cougars this season, as evidenced by its shiny 20-1 record that includes a win over defending AAA state champ Lower Dauphin.
And, of course, the aforementioned stretch of brilliance that highlighted its latest triumph.
"This season has been, by far, one of my favorite seasons to play in," Miller said. "We have a great group of seniors and a group of girls, and we all have the same goal. I think that helps get it accomplished."