This year, the Cougars are bound and determined to kick that door to the ground and find out firsthand what lies behind it.
An experienced, senior-oriented squad that went 6-4 a year ago and was in the playoff hunt until the bitter end, and one led by a pair of big-time players in middle linebacker and UConn recruit Jon Hicks and dynamic running back Preston Bare, has Palmyra optimistic that its first trip to the District Three postseason dance is well within its grasp.
"We have a good bit of guys coming back who were major, major players last year," Palmyra coach Chris Pope said. "As a coach, you just want to play every week (and not worry) about all that (playoff) stuff. But it's natural as a player, when you've gone 6-4, you want more. And I think that's where this team's at."
The Cougars almost got more last year, but were ultimately done in by two very winnable games they simply gave away - a come-from-ahead 31-25 week 2 loss to Boiling Springs and a 6-0 overtime loss at East Pennsboro in week 7. Palmyra closed out the season in style, by rallying for a dramatic 48-47 win over Northern Lebanon and outlasting Milton Hershey 28-25 in the regular-season finale, but it wasn't enough to move it into the 16-team Class AAA playoff field.
The Cougars ultimately finished 18th in the district power rankings, missing out on the 16th spot by mere percentage points.
"I think we have a great group of guys and we have good leadership," Pope said. "I think what we want to make sure we do, with that, is make sure we see improvement in how we handle ourselves in big-game situations.
"That's what kinda hurt us last year. We had some big points where we were a little bit young and didn't necessarily push it to the end.
Having enough talent, though, shouldn't be a problem.
Offensively, new starting quarterback Mason Laudermilch, a junior, has plenty of playmakers to work with in the 6-foot, 200-pound Bare, fellow senior back Dominic Faiola, a 5-8, 180-pound speedster, and senior wideout Jordan Harro, a returning starter on the outside. Also, Anthony Wayne is a transfer from Milton Hershey and will be in the mix at receiver.
Laudermilch, who's replacing a productive player in graduated starter Billy Beecher, will also have a veteran offensive line led by seniors Hicks, 295-pound Nate Greene and Braden Petrouskie, who's returning from a serious knee injury suffered early in the 2010 campaign, to protect him.
Promising sophomore center Joe Hess and junior tackle K.J. Williams, a 260-pounder, round out the group charged with helping Palmyra control the line of scrimmage and allowing Laudermilch to make a smooth transition into the starting role.
"Billy was a great quarterback, and obviously that was a little bit of a loss to us," Pope said. "But I have confidence in Mason Laudermilch. He's put a good offseason together. He knew what was his role was last year as Billy's backup and he worked hard. This offseason, knowing he's the heir apparent, he's dedicated himself to working hard."
The Cougars also figure to be in fine form on the defensive side of the ball, which is anchored by the linebacking corps of Hicks, Bare and fellow senior Nick Slobozien and immeasurably bolstered by the return of Petrouskie at defensive end.
Those four catalysts will be joined by Greene, Carson White, Wyatt Yasinski and Isaac Romberger up front, and Harro, Faiola, Laudermilch, Andrew Latchford, Neil Demsko and Wayne in the secondary.
The special teams, meanwhile, will rely on Matt Smoluk to handle the placekicking chores, while Harro and Tom Wieder will battle for the punting job.
Pope says Hicks, Bare and Slobozien may be the best trio of linebackers he's coached at Palmyra and noted that without the injury to Petrouskie the Cougars may already have a postseason appearance under their belts.
"Unfortunately he was cut down early," Pope said of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Petrouskie. "That affected us. If we had him, we might have made the playoffs, just because of the impact he had on the interior.
"I can't speak enough to how much he has worked (to come back from the injury). His work ethic is why he's here now. He worked so diligently and so hard that he's brought himself right back into the lineup. It's amazing what he's done."
Collectively, Palmyra has a chance to do something equally amazing to Petrouskie's comeback if it can in fact secure that coveted postseason spot. Adding to the incentive to do so is the fact that the Cougars, currently in the Mid-Penn Capital Division, will be moving to new division digs next season when the Mid-Penn realigns.
That means dealing with perennial powers like Bishop McDevitt and Red Land and presumably a decreased chance of postseason play.
"That's gonna be tough," Pope admitted.
But confronting what's in store for 2012 will certainly be a lot easier for Palmyra if 2011 ends with a playoff game for the first time.
"They want to have a very successful season," Pope said. "Our seniors, their expectation is to be in the playoffs."