EXETER - You can call them the UConn connection if you like, since they'll both be continuing their field hockey careers with that powerful collegiate program next year.
But on Saturday afternoon, it was more than sufficient to simply refer to Cheyenne Sprecher and Jess Dembrowski as the two best players on the field, and reasons No.1 and 1A why the Palmyra field hockey team is still entertaining state title hopes.
On the backs of the brilliant play of senior leaders Sprecher and Dembrowski, the Cougars punched their ticket to the PIAA 3A state semifinals for the third straight year Saturday, surviving District 1 power Unionville 2-1 in a hotly contested quarterfinal battle at Exeter High School.a
Sprecher was brilliant in goal with 10 saves - 8 of which came under duress during a hectic first half - and Dembrowski notched the game-winning goal with just 3:32 left to propel Palmyra into Tuesday's semifinal round opposite perennial rival Lower Dauphin, a 1-0 winner over Stroudsburg. Site and time for the contest has yet to be announced.
But no matter where the contest ends up being played, if Sprecher and Dembrowski show up the way they did on Saturday, the Cougars could well be adding a third straight state finals appearance to their extensive list of accomplishments.
"Cheyenne was just unbelievable, keeping us in the game in the first half," Palmyra coach Kristi Costello said. "That's what a good goalie is gonna do for your team. She's had some of her best games on this field in years past, and today was no different. And Jess, it was just getting her to believe in herself. It was like, 'Jess, you're one of the best players in the state, maybe the country, put the ball in the cage.' And she found a way to do that."
Now 21-2, the Cougars also collectively found a way to get it done despite being thoroughly outplayed in the first half by a Unionville squad (20-3) that came in averaging 5.5 goals per game.
And the Indians had their offensive prowess on full display prior to intermission, peppering Sprecher with 9 shots, one of which slipped into the cage with 11:19 left in the half, when Katie Anderson tallied the game's first goal.
But Palmyra knotted the score barely a minute later when Kylie Bomgardner tipped in Dembrowski's top-of-the-circle blast off a corner insert, and Sprecher did the rest with her stellar work in the cage to get the Cougars to the half locked in a 1-1 tie.
"It was pretty busy," Sprecher said with a chuckle of the first half she endured in goal. "But it's the state tournament, it's always gonna be hard. We knew they were a good team going into it, but our team just held them and got it done."
The second half was a completely different story, as Palmyra controlled much of the play behind big efforts from midfielders Dembrowski, Katelyn Mark and Lauren Wadas. But the improved play didn't show up on the scoreboard until Dembrowski stepped up huge with regulation time beginning to slip away.
Initiating a corner play near the left post, Dembrowski inserted a pass to Mark, who sent it back quickly. Dembrowski took it, dribbled hard to the middle of the circle and put a shot on goal that bounced off the pads of goalie Lizzie Gaebel. Dembrowski quickly pounced on the rebound and lifted it into the cage for the eventual game-winner.
"Just getting it back from the insert and trying to pull around them," Dembowski said of what she remembered about the goal. "The goalie was down and I just lifted it in."
And in doing so, Dembrowski assured that a very special era of Palmyra field hockey will last at least one more game.
"It's great to be back at it again," Sprecher said. "It's our senior year, so we want to go out with a bang. Hopefully that's what we do."
"We've had some good runs here the last couple years," Costello said. "There's been a core group of kids that have made this happen, and also our role players filling in those roles. This team, this year, has found a way to win. I'm just really proud of them."
Palmyra 2, Unionville 1
Unionville 1 0 - 1
Palmyra 1 1 - 2
Goals: U - Katie Anderson P - Kylie Bomgardner, Jess Dembrowski
Assists: P- Dembrowski, Katelyn Mark
Shots: Unionville 11, Palmyra 7ves
Saves: U-Lizzie Gaebel (5 saves) P - Cheyenne Sprecher (10 saves)
Corners: Palmyra 13, Unionville 8