From left, Gabi Gundermann, Katie Gundermann, Kaitlyn Carmo, Allison Langley and Emily Cleckner walk onto the court before the start of their Senior Night
From left, Gabi Gundermann, Katie Gundermann, Kaitlyn Carmo, Allison Langley and Emily Cleckner walk onto the court before the start of their Senior Night game against Susquehanna Township late last month. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS ASHLEY WALTER)
PALMYRA - The Palmyra girls' basketball team counts five seniors among the members of its varsity roster.

Only two of those five are in the starting lineup on a nightly basis. The other three are relegated to seldom-used reserve roles behind an extremely talented and committed group of underclassmen.

On many a high-school basketball team, that would be a recipe for dissension and disaster.

The 2012-13 Palmyra Cougars, however, aren't just any high school basketball team. There are numerous reasons for that. Three of them happen to be named Katie Gundermann, Allison Langley and Emily Cleckner.

Gundermann, Langley and Cleckner are the aforementioned three seniors who don't see much game action for Palmyra, which recently completed an unbeaten, 22-0 regular season that culminated with a dramatic Mid-Penn Keystone Division-clinching win over rival Hershey.

While classmates Kait Carmo and Gabi Gundermann, Katie's twin sister, play important on-court roles for head coach Ron Berman's club, the other three seniors are often relegated to the background, where they can only provide encouragement and moral support and hope for a few precious minutes of action late in blowout games.

If you're thinking that can't be much fun, well, think again. Gundermann, Langley and Cleckner have not only accepted their less-than-glamorous roles on the team, they've embraced them with great gusto, providing a critically important element of unselfishness and camaraderie to the Cougars' thus-far great success.

It's a difficult thing to quantify, but Berman and his team can assure you that it does indeed exist.


Advertisement

"To make a really good, close team, you've got to get the freshmen to buy into what's going on and understand their role in the program," Palmyra's coach said prior to a recent practice. "And you've got to get the seniors who aren't important in terms of playing time to understand how important they are (to the team). Some years it's more successful than others. This year, we have three seniors who exemplify what we like out of our athletes."

Why has it all worked out so well? Because those three seniors love basketball, their teammates, and, well, winning more than they dislike sitting on the bench.

"This year, it was really easy because it's just a great group of girls," Gundermann said. "We're given the same amount of respect and reps in practice, so I don't feel like I'm being treated as just a practice player. I'm having no problems with it."

Gundermann, Langley and Cleckner have each traveled different paths to accepting their status within the team.

Gundermann says she realized earlier in her high-school career that she simply wasn't as athletically gifted as some of her teammates but loved the game far too much to step away from it.

Emily Cleckner, one of five seniors on this year s undefeated Palmyra girls  basketball team, receives gifts during Senior Night recently.
Emily Cleckner, one of five seniors on this year s undefeated Palmyra girls basketball team, receives gifts during Senior Night recently. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS ASHLEY WALTER)

Langley's obstacles were also physical in nature, coming in the form of nagging injuries that derailed her path to potentially more playing time but failed to break her spirit.

"I've always had some kind of incentive to keep playing," she said. "Over the years, I've had so many injuries. Each year it was something new, so I never got into the full swing of things. But at the same time, I never felt like I wasn't part of the group.

"I definitely think that just because you don't play as much in games, it doesn't make you an important member of your team. I feel as though you make your teammates better in practice."

Being only human, Cleckner did at times feel like she wasn't a part of the group. At the beginning of last season, she became upset with her place in the pecking order and made what she now admits was an "emotional and impulsive" decision to leave the team.

But, like Gundermann and Langley, her love of hoops and her teammates never went away, leading to an easy decision to return this season.

"I just missed playing so much that I decided to come back out my senior year," she said. "And now we're 22-0. I just kinda accepted that (she wasn't going to play). And I mean, the underclassmen are amazing, I completely understand that. I just try and help them out and use my experience. I love being back. I just want to help them as much as I can."

"Each of them has their own special reason for being here," Berman said, "which I think is really neat."

The three even got a memorable reward for their selflessness a few games back. With Susquehanna Township in the house at Palmyra for a Senior Night clash, Berman, as many coaches do in similar situations, elected to start all five seniors.

In many cases, it's more of a ceremonial gesture than anything else, but Berman was determined to give the three an extended run with Carmo and Gabi Gundermann before making any substitutions.

At first, it didn't go particularly well. A few minutes in, the Cougars still hadn't scored and were struggling to find their way as a group.

Then Gundermann changed all that with one memorable flick of the wrists, nailing a rare (for her) 3-pointer that ignited the crowd and sent the Palmyra bench into a frenzy. Game over, too, as Palmyra went on to win in a rout.

"It was special," Gundermann said, grinning at the memory. "I was really nervous because I didn't want to screw it up for the team.

"Whenever we get in at the end of games, I always shoot these 3's. And I never make them. But I know I can make a '3', I've made them in practice.

"And so, I think it was in transition, Kait Carmo passes it to me and I'm on the wing and no one's covering me. So I thought, 'Why not?' It was just a great feeling. I think the whole team loved it, they all fell off the bench."

"That was incredible," Cleckner exclaimed, eyes flashing with excitement when the shot was mentioned. "I was not expecting that. I was so happy for her. It was awesome."

The best was yet to come for all the Cougars, and it came in the form of the dramatic one-point win against Hershey that clinched the unbeaten regular season and the Keystone title.

When the buzzer sounded, the entire team erupted in celebration, and Gundermann, Langley and Cleckner were right in the middle of it. In the strictest sense, they had nothing at all to do with what happened. And yet they had everything to do with what happened.

"I just remember everyone running onto the court, smiling and screaming," Langley said, laughing. "It must have been so loud. It felt so good. Girls were crying, Katie was bawling her eyes out. It felt so good to accomplish that, especially your senior year."

"It's really awesome that players who may not get as much playing time can go out there and contribute with the team. It just shows how much of a team we are."