There have been plenty of hugs to go around the past month, including this one between Palmyra head coach Ron Berman and Katie Dembrowski after their
There have been plenty of hugs to go around the past month, including this one between Palmyra head coach Ron Berman and Katie Dembrowski after their second-round state victory over Merion Mercy Academy last week. The Cougars take on Blackhawk tonight in Altoona in the state semifinals. (Jeremy Long — Lebanon Daily News)

Sometimes, less is more.

It didn't look like it at the time, but a postseason for the Palmyra girls' basketball team that did not include a berth in the Mid-Penn Conference playoffs may be part of the reason the Cougars are still playing in the third week of March.

A season that has included injuries and illness and way-too-many snow days, depending on who you ask, took its toll on many teams this winter, and Palmyra was no different. But the Cougars were able to regroup and get healthy during the 15 days between the end of the regular season and the opening round of the District Three playoffs.

"Between the injuries and bad weather, we just didn't get quality practice time," head coach Ron Berman said Monday night. "I'm not crying. Everybody was in that situation. But the fact that we didn't win the division and get in the postseason (Mid-Penn) tournament, we had seven or eight good practices. We got into another level of play."

It started with a 20-point victory over Hamburg in districts and continued Saturday with a seven-point win against Elizabeth Forward in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. The win leaves Palmyra (25-4) one of just four teams left in the Class AAA field when it takes on District Seven champion Blackhawk (26-2) on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. at Altoona High School.


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The winner will play in the state final on Saturday at 6 p.m. at Hershey's Giant Center against the winner of Tuesday's other semifinal between Archbishop Wood and Holy Redeemer.

To even be in that conversation seems unfathomable considering the Cougars lost their regular-season finale to Hershey, then dropped their quarterfinal district game to West Perry by a whopping 17 points. Since then, Palmyra has won five straight playoff games by an average of nearly 12 points per contest.

"Even the West Perry game, we played very well, we just couldn't make shots," Berman said. "We got better from that last Hershey loss. We regrouped and really improved from the second week in February."

The injury bug took Katie Dembrowski away from the team for nine weeks because of a broken wrist she suffered during the field hockey playoffs. Maria Tukis dealt with a broken foot that caused her to miss the end of the cross country season and the first part of the basketball campaign.

Carly Richardson missed four games and has been battling an ankle injury. Kristen Smoluk has been dealing with a torn muscle in her shoulder, which she reaggrivated Saturday against Elizabeth Forward and will cause her to miss the rest of the team's playoff run.

Even Cece Richardson, who was the team's second-leading scorer as a freshman but hasn't played the last two seasons because of torn ACL injuries, has been a missing commodity for Berman.

"Every time we turned around, there was an injury," he said. "We had something like 62 practices, and only five times we had our top eight practicing.

"Some times, this kind of thing makes you better. You have kids running with the top group who normally wouldn't. What's the saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?'"

This year's team also felt the comparisons to last year's team that won its first 29 games before falling in the second round of states. The Cougars came into the season riding a 33-game regular-season winning streak - which they extended to 44 games before losing to Mechanicsburg on Jan. 8.

"This team has lived in the shadow of last year," Berman admitted. "They felt like they were not as successful as soon as they lost their first game. You can't go 29-0 every year.

"But honestly, I felt this team had more potential. They have a higher ceiling. They have more potential, more weapons, more bench, and everything has fallen into place. ... They're not as (consistent) as last year's team the whole way, but they have been better than last year's team at the end."

Palmyra will have to be good, maybe even great, tonight against Blackhawk, which is coming off a victory over previously unbeaten Hickory. Ranked third in the state, Blackhawk has two state titles under its belt, but they came in 1998-99 and 2000-01.

Also nicknamed the Cougars, they have two Division I players in Cassidy Omogrosso (5-foot-5 junior point guard who committed to Duquesne as a sophomore) and Courtney Vannoy (6-1 junior forward who's off to Loyola, Md.). Halle Denman, a 5-7 senior guard, is another force who will play her college ball at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

"We're gonna have to play a great game," Berman admitted. "It's going to be a real challenge. There's only four teams left, so we're playing with the best."

Only the 1984-85 Palmyra girls' team that lost in the state final has advanced deeper into the season than this year's group. With a win Tuesday night, that wouldn't be the case any more.