Fast starts don’t guarantee strong finishes. But they sure do increase their likelihood.
The Palmyra football team enjoyed a great first night. Now the Cougars are charged with the task of making sure it wasn’t the highlight of their season.
On a steamy Friday evening at Lebanon Alumni Stadium, Palmyra registered a promising and encouraging 51-7 season-opening victory over the hometown Cedars. The Cougars enjoyed contributions from up and down their roster and in every phase of the game, as exemplified by six different players scoring touchdowns.
After opening last year’s campaign with a triumph over Lebanon, Palmyra finished its 2022 campaign with a 1-9 overall mark. For the Cedars, the setback was their 23rd consecutive loss dating back to the 2020 season.
“I’m extremely pleased with the result,” said Palmyra head coach Chris Pavone. “It’s been a long 364 days between wins. It’s something that drove them (his players) in the off season. We told them, ‘If you stay with the process, good things are going to happen.
“A year ago, we were 1-0 and the result was 1-9,” added Pavone. “We have to keep steadily improving. We haven’t fully tapped our potential.”
“We have to find success,” said Lebanon head coach Frank Isenberg. “Offensively, we have to put points on the board, we have to sustain drives. Kareem (starting quarterback Stoner) will get it. It was just his first start. But as the game wore on, it slowed down for him.”
The key moment in the contest came late in the second half, with Palmyra ahead 26-7. The Cedars had just scored on a pretty 14-yard touchdown hook-up between Stoner and Malachi Briddell and appeared to have the momentum necessary to mount a comeback.
But Palmyra’s Eli Rose stepped in front of a Stoner aerial and returned it 43 yards for the touchdown that pushed the Cougars’ advantage to 26 points. Palmyra added a 22-yard field goal from Matt Bordner on the final play of the half to take a 36-7 bulge to the locker room.
Lebanon was guilty of four turnovers on the evening.
“I probably felt good about the outcome halfway through the third quarter,” said Pavone. “We felt comfortable at halftime, but we stressed to our guys that we had to finish.
“Everyone is always optimistic at this point,” added Pavone. “Everyone is 0-0. Our kids were confident. Our staff has done a heck of a job of coaching these guys up. With the all-around effort, the kids were comfortable and with comfort comes confidence.”
“Football is a team game,” said Isenberg. “If the offense stumbles, the defense has got to pick us up. It’s complementary football. We beat ourselves on offense. I think the backbreaker was the pick-six right before halftime.
“We couldn’t punch it in a few times,” Isenberg added. “We’ve got to put points on the board when we’re in the red zone.”
Palmyra wasted little time getting off to a good start, scoring on Braxtin Risser’s 53-yard touchdown jaunt on its second snap of the season. On their second possession, the Cougars marched 65 yards on nine plays to get a 14-yard Ryan Kowalski-to-Keagen Kleinfelter scoring strike and a 13-0 lead.
Then Palmyra struck twice in a span of 2:33 early in the second stanza to push its advantage to 20-0. First, Justin Kaplan ripped off an 83-yard sprint to paydirt, and then Nate Eisenhooth hauled in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Kowalski.
“We’ve been stressing starting fast,” said Pavone. “On our first possession we got a two-play drive and a score, and that took the pressure off. Before that I felt we were a little tight.
“Lebanon is a hungry football program,” Pavone continued. “They have athletes, and they have size. We knew if we started fast, we could eventually wear them down.”
“The start was crucial,” said Isenberg. “I thought we had some momentum in our first drive, but we couldn’t score. They (the Cougars) scored right off the bat, and we couldn’t get our footing.
“They’re (the Cougars) pretty good up front,” added Isenberg. “They’re physical. They did some very good things against us.”
With 3:30 remaining in the third quarter, Kaplan scored his second touchdown on an 18-yard run to evoke the mercy rule.
Palmyra rushed for 304 yards and outgained the Cedars 390 total yards to 185.
“When we installed this offense, we told our team that multiple guys were going to get touches,” said Pavone. “We just pushed that on our guys. We saw that Kaplan was going to be a physical runner.
“The goal is to improve every single day,” continued Pavone. “I’m not one to make predictions, but we want to push the program in a different direction. They (his players) have a chip on their shoulders. Our kids take everything to heart.”
Kaplan, a junior bruiser, carried the ball 10 times for 181 yards. Defensively, Kleinfelter and Kyle Koennecke led the Cougars with six tackles apiece.
“I thought there were some positives, even though the score was what it was,” said Isenberg. “I thought the score would be close. Their defensive line gave us some trouble, and we couldn’t get off blocks.”
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