Palmyra head coach Ron Berman celebrates the Cougars’ Mid-Penn Conference title on Thursday night.
Palmyra head coach Ron Berman celebrates the Cougars' Mid-Penn Conference title on Thursday night. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)
HERSHEY - The Palmyra girls' basketball team is a little too good and a lot too undefeated to ever be comfortably cast as some underdog Cinderella squad. No matter the opponent or the circumstances.

And yet, there was something of a sense that the Cougars may have been in a little over their head when they arrived at Milton Hershey's Spartan Center on Thursday evening to do battle with big-school - and just plain big - power Cumberland Valley in the Mid-Penn Conference championship game.

The unblemished 23-0 record Palmyra brought with it figured to be of little use when CV trotted out its highly formidable and skilled trio of frontcourt 6-footers Jackie Falconer, Maddie Torresin and Kelly Jekot in a bid to bring the Mid-Penn crown back to the conference's premiere division, the always highly-regarded Commonwealth.

As it turned out, the Cougars did indeed have their hands full. Just not as much as Cumberland Valley did.

With its most impressive overall performance in a season filled with high-caliber efforts, Palmyra captured its first Mid-Penn crown with a heart-pounding 60-56 victory in front of a packed house at the Spartan Center.

The Cougars overcame any perceived disadvantages and 46 combined points from Falconer, Torresin and freshman wunderkind Jekot with yet another dose of controlled aggression and team-centered play highlighted by a brilliant 18-point performance from junior emotional leader Carly Richardson.

Underdogs? Hey, why not?

"We knew coming into this the odds weren't in our favor, because we were the underdogs," said sophomore guard Maria Tukis, who contributed 10 key points and difference-making defensive energy to the win, "which is something we've never been before. It felt like we had something to prove. We knew whoever played with the most aggression and heart would win, and I think we were able to do that.

Palmyra s Maria Tukis drives against Cumberland Valley s Alyssa Hinish during the third quarter of Thursday s Mid-Penn Conference championship game at
Palmyra s Maria Tukis drives against Cumberland Valley s Alyssa Hinish during the third quarter of Thursday s Mid-Penn Conference championship game at Milton Hershey. The Cougars remained undefeated at 24-0 and captured the program s first-ever Mid-Penn Conference title with a 60-56 victory. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)
"

The buckets of sweat - and glory - that veteran head coach Ron Berman was covered in afterwards said all that needed to be said of how difficult the Cougars' task was.

But by being the walking definition of a true team - all 8 Cougars that saw playing time scored and made key contributions in the defense and rebounding departments - Palmyra got the job done in highly impressive fashion.

"To me, what's really nice for the girls is they're gonna end up having these medals forever," Berman said. "We're gonna be on that board of champions, and that's really, really nice to have that type of thing. It means a lot. It's almost like, 'Wow, we did it.'"

Berman also noted that the enormity of it all hadn't sunk in yet, and that's completely understandable given that Palmyra never had a single moment in the contest to reflect on the possibility of what it ended up accomplishing.

The two teams were never separated by more than six points, and any lead either team grabbed never felt particularly safe.

Palmyra did trail 9-4 midway through the first quarter, before eventually pulling even at 13 on a Molly Gundermann putback with 15 seconds left in the opening period.

The Cougars then grabbed a measure of control in the second behind 10 of Richardson's 18 points, including two huge 3-pointers in the final 1:13 of the half, and claimed a 30-24 halftime lead.

Palmyra s Katie Dembrowski goes to the rim as Cumberland Valley s Kelly Jekot attempts to block her shot in Thursday s Mid-Penn Conference title game at
Palmyra s Katie Dembrowski goes to the rim as Cumberland Valley s Kelly Jekot attempts to block her shot in Thursday s Mid-Penn Conference title game at Milton Hershey. The Cougars clawed out a 60-56 victory. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS GLEN GRAY)

"It was an awesome game, it was back and forth the whole way," Richardson said, before chuckling, "Fortunately my team was able to make a couple more baskets than the other team."

Part of the reason for that was Palmyra's extreme reluctance to allow CV to see the ball go through the hoop. Though the Eagles ran their offense brilliantly at times - including early in the third when they put on a mini-clinic to secure a 36-32 lead less than three minutes into the period - they also had times when they had trouble shaking the Cougars, namely reserve ballhawking guards Tukis and Katie Dembrowski.

Tukis was particularly effective, drawing a charging call on the then red-hot Jekot that sent the frosh to the bench with her fourth foul with 1:13 left in the third. 

Palmyra also mastered playing aggressively without fouling. In 32 minutes, where whistled for just seven fouls, compared to 19 for CV.

"We pride ourselves on our defense," Richardson said. "We have some super-athletic girls like Maria Tukis, Gabi (Gundermann) and Katie Dembrowski, and I'm sure I'm forgetting somebody. Everybody just plays incredible defense and they take pride in their individual defense. We know if we stop our players as individuals that will contribute to the team and a great effort."

"When they get into their set offense, they are really, really good," Berman said. "When we could make them hurry a little bit that brought it back to us being able to play a little better."

A good example of Palmyra's defensive prowess came in the waning seconds of the third. After Kristen Smoluk nailed a pair of free throws to knot the score at 42, Gabi Gundermann came up with a steal that led to Katy McClellan's putback at the third-quarter horn and a two-point lead heading down the stretch.

Palmyra would not trail again, although there were anxious moments aplenty in the fourth with Jekot, Torresin and Falconer each hitting big shots in the final period to keep CV in the hunt.

The Eagles were still in the hunt after Torresin nailed a '3' to make it a 54-53 with 1:25 left, but from there Kait Carmo (10 points) and Richardson combined to go 6-for-8 from the free throw line to finally assure Palmyra would wear a Mid-Penn crown, along with, of course, both the smiles and joyful tears of champions.

"It's just a blessing to be able to get this point in the season," said Richardson, who along with the rest of the Cougars, will now turn her attention to the District Three playoffs. "Not many girls will be able to look back at tell their kids someday that I played in front of a 1,000 people (in a championship game). And I won. To be able to play in this kind of atmosphere for such a great and valued prize, it's just awesome."

GIRLS
MID-PENN CONFERENCE
CHAMPIONSHIP
at Milton Hershey H.S.
PALMYRA 60, CUMBERLAND VALLEY 56
CUMBERLAND VALLEY (56)
Sneidman 1 0-0 2, Je. Falconer 1 0-0 2, Hinish 2 0-2 4, Ja. Falconer 7 1-3 16, Torresin 6 0-0 14, Jekot 7 0-0 16, Rhoades 1 0-0 2. Totals 25 1-5 56.
PALMYRA (60)
Dembrowski 2 0-0 4, Tukis 4 2-4 10, Carmo 2 6-8 10, Smoluk 3 3-4 9, M. Gundermann 1 0-0 2, McClellan 1 2-4 4, G. Gundermann 1 0-0 3, Richardson 6 4-6 18. Totals 20 17-26 60.
Cumberland Valley 13 11 18 14 - 56
Palmyra 13 17 14 16 - 60
3-point goals - Cumb. Valley 5 (Jekot 2, Torresin 2, Ja. Falconer), Palmyra 3 (Richardson 2, G. Gundermann).
Total Fouls - Cumb. Valley 19, Palmyra 7
Fouled Out - Cumb. Valley: Torresin; Palmyra: none.