The first half of the season could not have played out any better for the Palmyra football team.
Unless you consider an unblemished 5-0 record, a cozy No. 2 spot in the Class AAA district power rankings, and the promise of meaningful games for at least the next five weeks to be lacking in some way.
The fun, though, may just be beginning. Along with the challenges.
The Cougars have done exactly what they needed to do to put themselves in position for both a district playoff berth and a run at the Mid-Penn Capital Division title as the second half of the 2015 season beckons.
But to get to those promised lands, Palmyra will have to navigate some choppy waters in division play, beginning with Friday night's road test at Boiling Springs.
"I've been happy with our football team. We haver a great group of kids," Palmyra coach Chris Pope said, following Wednesday's practice, of the Cougars' work to date. "Our seniors, especially. They're really good and they've exerted great leadership, and that's probably why we're at where we're at.
"Kids in high school football these days work so hard, throughout the entire year, and it's nice when you can see them experience meaningful games due to their hard work. It's a great feeling."
The Cougars will get more than their share of experiences with meaningful games the next three weeks at least, with Friday's battle at Boiling Springs to be followed by a home date with fellow unbeaten Camp Hill next week and a matchup at current co-division leader Middletown on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 2 p.m.
"We never like to get ahead of ourselves, obviously," said Pope. "We kinda go every week and talk about how we have to get better each week. From week one, we've talked about how, 'That was a great effort, it looked great, but we've got to get better.' The teams coming down the road, starting this Friday, they're good football teams.
"Not that the teams we beat aren't good football teams, but Boiling Springs is 4-1 and we're gonna need to be hitting on all cvlinders to compete with them. After that it's Camp Hill and it just keeps going."
The first order of business for Palmyra is to find a way to slow down the Bubblers' star running back Bryan Malone, who's racked up a whopping 917 yards through the first five weeks. Palmyra's got plenty of offensive playmakers to counter with, including backs Alon Rhette and Carl Reigle, quarterback Tyler Gallagher and Wildcat threat Zack Yingst, but defense should tell the story on Friday.
"Whenever you're dealing with a big-time rusher like that you just hope to contain him," Pope said. "You have to limit the big plays and limit their offense being on the field altogether. If we can sustain our drives and methodically go down the field, that's less time that they'll be on offense and (Malone) will be running the football."
The Cougars, who've held three of their first five opponents to single digits, are certainly capable of containing Malone and the Bubblers, and if they do will take one more important step in the direction of their ultimate goals.
"I think one of the goals the kids want to check the box on is making it to the postseason," said Pope, who guided the Cougars to the second round of districts in 2011. "But what we try to focus on as coaches is just the process of getting there. Just continue to work hard each week and get better each week and let all that take care of itself."
Also on tap Friday night for Lebanon County teams:
WILLIAMS VALLEY AT NORTHERN LEBANON>>
The also unbeaten Vikings (5-0) take a respite of sorts from their Section Three title defense to entertain the District 11 reps in a non-league clash.
Northern Lebanon is coming off a 42-17 win at Pequea Valley in which it fumbled eight times, lost four, and still emerged with a convincing victory, so it should be able to handle anything that Williams Valley, also nicknamed the Vikings, has to offer.
Williams Valley (2-3) has been up and down thus far, with last week's 42-20 loss at Newport counting as one of the downs. But it also has a 61-26 victory over Upper Dauphin to its credit, so the Vikings from Fredericksburg should come ready to play.
Chances are they will, given their impressive, unbeaten work in the first half of the season.
DONEGAL AT ELCO>>
Plot lines galore in this one, not the least of which is the winner at least temporarily takes sole possession of first place in Section Three with Northern Lebanon venturing out of the section this week.
Then there is the matter of Elco senior QB Jeff Martin's pursuit of the county's career passing yardage record. Martin stands at 5,834 career yards, 163 shy of the mark held by Lebanon's James Capello.
Martin threw for 204 in last Thursday's thrilling 40-39 OT win at Annville-Cleona. Receiver Andrew Olson and lineman Colt Umberger also starred against A-C, earning Section Three Back and Lineman of the Week honors from the L-L Quarterback Club in the process.
Elco (2-3, 2-0) and Donegal (3-2, 2-0) both appear to be rounding into form after slow starts, so this should be a good one.
CEDAR CREST AT MANHEIM TOWNSHIP>>
From the frying pan into the fire go the Falcons, who are coming off a 35-14 loss at Wilson and must now head to Neffsville to face another Section One heavyweight in Mark Evans' Blue Streaks.
Township (4-1, 2-0 Section One) is averaging 35.8 points per game and figures to be a handful for a Cedar Crest team (2-3, 1-1) that is improved defensively but will be facing a lot of firepower led by QB Erik Benjamin and his 15 touchdown passes.
ANNVILLE-CLEONA AT EPHRATA>>
A-C is licking its wounds a bit after two straight losses and should find a cure for what's ailing it in winless Ephrata.
The Little Dutchmen (3-2, 0-2 Section Three) and their run game trio of quarterback Adam Fox and running backs Will Langan and Cameron Hoch figure to be too much for an Ephrata squad that has surrendered a staggering 231 points in five games while enduring a margin of defeat of almost 36 points per contest.
A-C gets well this week unless something incredibly goofy happens.
SOLANCO AT LEBANON>> Solanco used to be one of the more winnable games on Lebanon's brutal Section Two schedule, but not so much anymore.
The Golden Mules are the talk of the section so far, off to a 5-0 start and enjoying a share of first place with Manheim Central, which walloped Lebanon 62-14 last week.
Since a thrilling come-from-behind win at Elco in Week 3, the Cedars (1-4, 0-2) have been outscored 112-18 in lopsided losses to Cocalico and Central.