WEST CHESTER - It surely wasn't the outcome the Palmyra field hockey team wanted. It probably wasn't even what it deserved, given the intensity and quality of the effort it put forth.

But the reality of the state playoffs being what it is, the Cougars had to settle for an honorable defeat as their last memory of the 2012 season.

Producing what head coach Kristi Costello called "definitely" its best performance of the season, Palmyra threw a mighty scare into District One champion/powerhouse Villa Maria on Tuesday afternoon before falling, 3-2, in a PIAA Class AA first-round state playoff tussle at West Chester East High School.

Down 1-0 just over two minutes in and seemingly in a world of trouble after allowing such an early goal, the Cougars instead roared back to take a 2-1 lead when sophomore catalyst Katie Dembrowski converted a penalty stroke eight minutes into the second half.

But from there, Villa Maria showed its championship mettle, putting forth a relentless push that netted the tying goal with 13:37 left and Megan Parsons' game-winning penalty stroke with a heartbreaking 2:58 to play.

Palmyra came back with a spirited rally in the last two minutes, including a rocket shot from Kendall Kreider that Villa goalie Erika Miller somehow knocked away in the final minute, but it wasn't enough to prevent the type of tear-filled ending it was desperately trying to avoid.

But let the record show the Cougars, who finish at 19-4, went down swinging. Uppercuts, left hooks, right crosses, you name it and Palmyra threw it during a furious 60 minutes of heart-and-soul effort that quarterfinal round-bound Villa Maria somehow withstood.

"If we went out today, we wanted to go out fighting," fourth-year head coach Costello said, before choking up with emotion for a moment. "Which we did. We wanted to be able to look at our seniors and say that we played the best that we could. And I think they did. Villa's a great team and I think we gave them a great game. We have a lot to be proud of."

But Costello and her squad also know they were oh so close to a spot in the quarterfinal round after producing a scintillating stretch of hockey that began almost immediately after Katie Mooney knocked in the early goal that put Villa and its now 20-game win streak into a familiar front-running position.

Passing crisply, moving a step quicker than its opponents and playing with unselfish purpose, Palmyra tilted the field for much of the rest of the first half and was rewarded with the equalizer when with 12:58 left in the half Dembrowski sent a rocket crossing pass from near the right sideline to a waiting Erin Huffman in the middle of the circle. The freshman forward did the rest, punching the perfect pass past a lunging Miller for the tying score.

The Cougars' control of the contest leaked into the second half and morphed into a bonafide lead when Dembrowski coolly converted the aforementioned penalty stroke with 22:01 to play after Miller had tumbled into Huffman and Haley Bova while trying to stop a Palmyra charge into the circle.

"We've really been practicing that, two-touching, 2v1s, and I thought our team did a great job with that," Costello said of the Cougars' passing-game success. "Just not taking on your opponent with a dribble, but passing. I thought we were really moving the ball well up and down the field doing that. I thought we were getting a lot of good looks inside the circle."

Unfortunately for Palmyra, Dembrowski's stroke seemed to awaken a sleeping giant. Villa went to work in a big way as soon as it trailed, and despite its best efforts, the Cougars could never reclaim the momentum. It couldn't catch a break, either, as evidenced by the fact that Meghan Murphy's tying goal with 13:37 left was allowed to stand despite the fact that it appeared to come off a high pass from Olivia Bolles at the right of the circle.

"She had no question about it," Costello said of the response she received when she questioned the official about the call. "I was asking if the initial shot was high and she said that it tipped off someone. She had the better angle, because obviously I'm 80 yards down the field. From my point of view I thought it was a high ball, but that's not what the official thought."

There was no questioning Parsons' game-winner, though. On yet another Villa venture into the circle, Cougar goalie Nicole Berger denied an initial shot off a corner but ended up smothering the loose ball with her left glove hand, leading to a no-brainer awarding of the penalty stroke that Parson easily converted.

To their credit, the Cougars didn't hang their heads after the goal, rallying to produce two corner tries in the final minute, the first of which netted Kreider's previously noted near-goal that briefly brought Palmyra's bench to its feet.

"It was a great shot," Costello said, managing a smile. "You gotta give it to their defense and their goalie back there, because they found a way to stop it. I don't even know what it hit, I couldn't see it. We definitely had opportunities there at the end. We gave ourselves every opportunity to stay alive."

Emerging victorious would have not only put Palmyra into Saturday's quarterfinals and kept its state title aspirations alive, it would have given Costello and the Cougars at least a few more days with a senior class they've grown quite fond of competing alongside. A district quarterfinal loss to Donegal and a second-place finish in the Mid-Penn Keystone Division ensured that those seniors would conclude their careers without any championships.

But the group of 12th-graders - Mary Albus, Amber Bailey, Megan Cook, Jillian Weaver and Olivia Young - will leave with a great deal of respect and gratitude from their head coach.

"We don't have any championships to show for it, but I can tell you we have some great memories," Costello said. "This group of girls is very special to me. It's actually the first group of seniors I've coached all the way through, and I'm just proud of the growth they had. I don't necessarily have a star player in the senior group, but I have a lot of great role players. And they were stars in their role. I think that said a lot about the kind of team that we were."