Understandably, the Palmyra field hockey team wasn't of state championship quality when the 2016 season began.

Needing to replace its two leading scorers (Erin Huffman, Kiley Gallagher) and top defender (Carli Herman) from last season's district champion and state finals runner-up, the Cougars needed some time to grow, evolve and mature.

This just in: They did quite nicely, eventually capturing another district championship and earning a third straight trip to the 3A state finals. Its latest quest for state gold - Palmyra is appearing in its fifth state title game since 2005 and is 1-2-1 in the previous four - comes Saturday at 2 p.m. at Zephyr Sports Complex in Whitehall against Emmaus in a rematch of last season's championship clash won by Emmaus 1-0 in overtime.

The Cougars bring a record of 22-2 into the matchup, while Emmaus is 27-0 and the top-ranked team in the nation.

It's been an eventful journey back to the finals for Palmyra, so with that in mind let's take a look back at how it got there and some of the memorable stops along the way:

Sept. 2, Palmyra 2, Hempfield 0: The Cougars opened their season with a shutout of Lancaster-Lebanon Section One rep Hempfield, getting goals from Katelyn Mark and Jess Dembrowski in the win and a four-save shutout win in goal from Cheyenne Sprecher. In a hint of things to come, it would also prove to be the first of 14 shutouts posted by the Cougars' ultra stingy defense.

Sept. 12, Hershey 1, Palmyra 0: In the first of two shutout losses to rival Hershey - their only two of the season - the Cougars couldn't answer Maddi Zimmer's second half goal and fell off the early pace in their quest to defend their Mid-Penn Keystone Division title. Another shutout defeat to Hershey would follow on Sept. 29, but it would prove to be Palmyra's last loss to date, although it would cost them any chance of winning the Keystone again.

"Sometimes things don't go your way, and this is an opportunity for us to refocus and learn from some things," Palmyra coach Kristi Costello said after the loss. "I told my team, 'It's OK if it's not ending your season.' We still have a lot of positives to take from this game."

Oct. 5, Palmyra 2, Lower Dauphin 1 (OT): Although it couldn't solve Hershey during the regular season, Palmyra had much better success against its biggest rival, Lower Dauphin, taking the first meeting 2-1 on Sept. 19 in Hummelstown, then pulling out a 2-1 overtime triumph at home in the second showdown courtesy of Dembrowski's slick unassisted goal at 9:11 of the extra session.

Oct. 12, Palmyra 3, Susquehanna Township 2 (OT): In its regular season finale, Palmyra struggled mightily with a sub-.500 Township team, prevailing only on the strength of freshman Lauren Wadas' goal at 13:30 of OT.

It wasn't the ideal way to head into the postseason - and its next game wouldn't come for 17 days after a first round bye in districts - but Palmyra has obviously raised its level of play dramatically ever since. To say the least.

Nov. 2, Palmyra 1, Hershey 0: After a convincing 3-0 win over Dallastown in its district opener on Oct. 29, Palmyra gained sweet revenge over Hershey four days later, riding Kylie Bomgardner's dramatic game-winning goal with 21 seconds left to a shot at defending its district title. The real drama was yet to come, though.

Nov. 5, Palmyra 3, Penn Manor 2 (OT): In a season filled with impressive wins, this one ranks No. 1 for now. Facing a high-powered top seed in Penn Manor in the 3A district title game, the Cougars appeared headed for defeat until Lexy Smith's tying goal with 27 seconds left in regulation set the stage for Wadas' euphoric game-winner at 3:38 of the extra session and the program's 11th district title.

Nov. 12, Palmyra 2, Unionville 1: After a solid but unspectacular win over Council Rock South in the first round of states, Palmyra upped its level of play again in the quarterfinals. This time it topped a high-scoring Unionville squad behind 10 saves in goal from Sprecher and Dembrowski's tie-breaking, game-winning score with 3:32 left that advanced it to the state semifinals for the third straight year.

Nov. 15, Palmyra 1, Lower Dauphin 0: The Cougars completed a three-game season sweep of LD on the strength of a suffocating defensive effort highlighted by no shots or corners allowed in the first half.

Dembrowski scored the game's lone goal less than five minutes into the first half and Palmyra furiously defended the lead from there en route to claiming another shot at state gold.

"It's amazing. It's so shocking every time it happens," senior midfielder Mark said. "It's the best feeling in the world. To go to another state championship with my senior class, it's just amazing."

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