Heroic efforts key in Palmyra's Bears Cup repeat
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In the words of Palmyra hockey coach Warren Lewis, “You know that to have success in winning championships, everything has to come together. They did for us, but they almost didn’t.”
Those two sentences perfectly sum up what the Palmyra hockey team went through this CPIHL season in its quest to defend its Bears Cup championship.
It’s obviously very difficult to win back-to-back titles.
When the injury bug affects three of your top players, however, the journey becomes tougher.
And we’re talking serious injuries here.
While most players would take time to heal or perhaps sit out an entire season, three Cougars players decided the opposite – knowing with medical clearance, they would play, not caring one iota how much pain they’re in.
For junior goaltender Liam Schmidt, and seniors Cameron Ihli and captain Drew Poleshuk, the only healing for them was leading their team to back-to-back Bears Cup championships – accomplished with a dramatic and thrilling 4-3 overtime win in come-from-behind fashion over Cumberland Valley on March 4 at HersheyPark Arena.
“Your leaders better hate to lose,” Lewis said. “One thing about our (seven) seniors … they hate to lose. They had an extra gear in the playoffs that we just didn’t have in the regular season. Us coaches, we still had our doubts. We had our times when we really questioned whether we had the desire to beat Hershey and Cumberland Valley. When it came to crunch time, the kids got it done.”
Poleshuk, who had perhaps the most stunning return to the ice, played with broken foot for a good portion of the season, using a boot over his skate.
“When I found out, I said to him he was done,” Lewis said. “But Drew told me the doctor said if he could play with the pain he could postpone surgery. I didn’t know how this kid was going to play because he didn’t practice for two weeks. You could tell he didn’t have the same push off as he usually did to start, but he got used to it as the season went along and pain seemed to subside for him. But again, come playoff time he was great. He’s a very skilled defenseman.”
Schmidt, who played in his third Bears Cup, played all season with a sore hip and then suffered a concussion versus CV earlier in the season, and was out for three weeks.
“He wasn’t quite himself,” Lewis said. “It took him a while to get his confidence back and to get his feet back under him. He persevered through the injuries, especially in the Bears Cup game. When we got down 2-0, we were hanging on for our lives. Schmidty kept his composure. He’s quick and the kid can stop pucks. He and the rest of the seniors had that look in their eye that we were going to be OK.”
Ihli really put his team on his shoulders offensively while dealing with a shoulder injury, recording 10 points during the Cougars’ playoff run, and scored the game-tying goal in the Bears Cup game.
“He was a horse in the playoffs,” Lewis said. “He had some dark times during the season where his shoulder was popping out all the time. He’s a physical player and he couldn’t be. But by the time the playoffs came around, he was intense and committed.”
What made Lewis so proud is not just that he saw his team accomplish its goal while overcoming so much adversity, it was the way they handled themselves from the very beginning.
“We started training on or about June 1, and we practiced every week this summer,” Lewis said. “During the season, we’d practice once or twice a week, plus these kids are playing for their travel teams. These kids could do a lot of other things.
"To pay the price like they did and fight through the demons of having to repeat, and then get the championship game into overtime and then score … it was unbelievable. The whole arena went crazy and so did the coaching staff. You could see the jubilation in their faces.”
With that, the win against the Eagles certainly goes down as one of the best in Lewis’ coaching career.
“I started coaching 20 years ago … that win against Cumberland Valley is in our top five,” Lewis said. “High school kids are fun. They’re respectful, disciplined, stay in shape, and want to compete and represent their school.”