No one thought much of their chances at the beginning of the season. But the Palmyra girls’ basketball team didn’t take it personally, just because outside noise really doesn’t matter all that much.
Apparently, the Cougars who prey together stay together.
“No one expected this, and now we’re fighting for the title,” said Palmyra’s fourth-year head coach, John Polly. “At the beginning of the season, we were the hunters. Then we became the hunted. Now we have the bullseye on our back. We’re getting everyone’s best shot, so we have to be on top of our game.”
To a degree they’re still flying very much under the radar, but the Palmyra girls have been one of the feel-good stories of Lebanon County’s winter sports season. It’s a story that revolves around overachieving, coming together and hard work.
With many of their preseason goals still in front of them, the Cougars are currently focused on sharing a Mid-Penn Keystone Division championship with Mechanicsburg. At 15-5 overall and 11-2 in the division, Palmyra can attain that accomplishment with a road win at Red Land on Saturday evening.
But there is also the upcoming District Three tournament to consider. Palmyra is currently seeded seventh in an AAAAA classification which takes 14 teams for its playoffs,
“That’s what our focus is right now,” said Polly of the Keystone crown. “It would absolutely be a great accomplishment if we could get there.
“These girls don’t want this to end,” continued Polly. “None of them have made a state tournament. We think that’s within our reach.”
What makes the Cougars’ campaign even more remarkable is where they started and how far they’ve come. Palmyra is just a year removed from a disappointing 5-17 season.
“It was frustrating,” said Polly. “We were close last year, but we weren’t quite there. We didn’t want to repeat that. The more we’ve won, you could see the commitment level keep rising. It’s become contagious. They (his players) take the losses hard. Our (coaches’) job is to make sure they’re prepared. There’s still work to be done and a lot of season to be played.
“I wouldn’t say that we’ve overachieved,” Polly added. “I knew we could be pretty good if the chemistry was right, if the girls played for each other. I was cautiously optimistic at the beginning of the season. Once we got rolling, we had to make little tweaks here and there to make it more productive for them.”
A preseason poll of Mid-Penn Keystone Division coaches picked Palmyra to finish sixth in this year’s standings.
“I think they all came in with those expectations,” said Polly of his players’ collective focus on improvement. “But I’m not sure they were this high. Our summer season was very productive. The new pieces got a chance to get on the court with each other. We didn’t have to build that chemistry. We could hit the ground running.
“We’ve only lost one game that was out of reach,” Polly continued. “We’re in every game because of our defense. But we don’t need to hold teams to 20 points to win. When we have good offensive games, we can separate from people.”
Palmyra’s very good season hasn’t been without its challenges, its ups and downs.
Despite back-to-back defeats to Lebanon and Cedar Crest early, the Cougars started the year 13-2. Over the last five outings, Palmyra has gone just 2-3.
“These girls log a lot of minutes,” said Polly. “The girls are conditioned well and they’re fine with it. But we’ve had some injuries and some illnesses.
“I’d say our biggest challenge has been managing a short roster,” added Polly. “Our starting five plays almost the whole game every game. I have to make sure I’m not overworking them.”
The chemistry piece has also shaken out well for the Cougars. Seniors Keely Bowers and Emma Sibbach are the leaders, but it may have been the infusion of sophomores Addi Salus and Mya Doster that caused Palmyra to really take off.
“I think the key to success has just been getting all the girls on the same page,” said Polly. “You need to be connected defensively and share the ball offensively. This group of girls has really bought into that idea. We find the hot hand. It’s all about winning games. It doesn’t matter who gets the accolades. It’s all about ‘we’ and not about ‘me.’”
“Now Keely isn’t the focus of every defense,” continued Polly. “It’s a pick-your-poison kind of thing. We have more diversity in scoring. It gives us a little more dimension.”
Very much of the story of the 2023-24 Palmyra girls’ basketball team has yet to be written. And while the Cougars are far from satisfied, nothing that happens from here on out could taint their success.
“I’m really proud of the girls’ dedication,” said Polly. “They come ready to work every day. This group collectively wants to succeed. That makes coaching relatively easy.
“All the reward I get is seeing these girls succeed,” concluded Polly. “They get all the credit. All I try to do is point them down the road.”
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