PALMYRA >> It was a great, great battle between two terrific, unbeaten football teams.
Years from now, even as their memories fade, the participants will look back with pride at having taken part in such a riveting contest.
You won't be able to tell anyone on the Palmyra football team that for a while, though. Not until the sting subsides a little bit.
For now, the Cougars are hurting, courtesy of Friday night's gut-wrenching 28-24 loss to Camp Hill in a spirited battle of 6-0 Mid-Penn Capital Division teams at Buck Swank Stadium.
Up 17-7 late in the third quarter and seemingly on its way to a giddy 7-0 start, Palmyra instead let the Lions back in the game with an ill-timed pick-six and ultimately ended up with a bitter first taste of defeat after Wyatt Beddow hauled in a five-yard TD pass on fourth down with 40 seconds left for the decisive points.
"It's tough," said a disappointed but unbowed Palmyra coach Chris Pope. "But at the same time you've gotta be proud of the way you played the game. I'm proud of our players. Would we have wanted to win tonight? Certainly. But our goal all along has been to get better each week and get in the postseason, and that's what we've gotta focus on."
The top-ranked team in the latest District 3 AAA power rankings, the Cougars did get better in defeat behind a warrior-like performance from junior running back Alon Rhette, who rumbled for 140 yards on 27 carries.
In what was something of a microcosm of the night, Rhette and the Cougars answered a Camp Hill touchdown a minute into the game — a 17-yard Bill Williams burst — with a 4-yard TD run with 1:35 to go in the opening quarter.
Camp Hill, led by Michael Shuster and Williams, kept throwing knock-out caliber punches and the Cougars repeatedly answered with body blows until the well-placed Lions' haymaker connected in the final seconds.
"I think everybody who watches football knows about him," Pope said of Shuster, who was automatic in the second half. "I think we did a pretty good job with him, but he's gonna find those guys. But I was proud of the way our guys played. It came down to one final play."
Palmyra took a 14-7 lead into the break after Tyler Gallagher hit Peter Robertson with a 30-yard TD pass in the waning stages of the half, and extended it to 17-7 on a 27-yard Ethan Harro field goal with 9:14 left in the third.
But roughly six minutes later, the game turned for good when Logan Vallati stepped in front of a Gallagher pass and rumbled 50 yards to paydirt to cut the deficit to 17-14. The Lions then took their first lead since the first quarter with 9:35 left when Williams hauled in a 19-yard scoring strike.
To their credit, the Cougars did not wilt, reclaiming the lead at 24-21 on Carl Reigle's 3-yard scoring scamper with 6:46 to go, only to see Camp Hill steal away with the win in the end.
"This loss is gonna sting," Pope said. "And honestly, it should. If you're a good football team, you shouldn't be happy with any kind of loss. It should be like acid in your mouth. We gotta regroup, learn from this, apply it, and get back on track."
Camp Hill 28, Palmyra 24
CH — Williams 17 run (Williams kick)
P — Rhette 4 run (Harro kick)
P — Robertson 30 pass from Gallagher (Harro kick)
P — Harro 27 FG
CH — Vallati 50 interception return (Williams kick)
CH — Williams 19 pass from Shuster (Williams kick)
P — Reigle 3 run (Harro kick)
CH — Beddow 5 pass from Shuster (Williams kick)
CHPFirst downs2012Rushes-yards27-13835-208Passing18-25-06-13-1Passing yards21374Total yards351282Punts2-46.03-38.4Fumbles-lost0-00-0Penalties-yards5-507-55
Rushing — CH: Williams 13-70, Shuster 11-65, Williamson 3-3. P: Rhette 27-140, Reigle 3-60, D. Sosnoski 2-5, Yingst 1-2, Gallagher 7-1
Passing — CH: Shuster 18-25-0-213, P: Gallagher 5-12-1-48, Yingst 1-1-0-26
Receiving — CH: Vallati 5-46, Kuntz 4-54, Beddow 4-43, Williams 3-35, Williamson 1-35. P: Robertson 2-35, Gallagher 1-26, Fogleman 1-6, Reiglec 1-4, Hatcher 1-3.