The Cougars advanced to the state finals for the third straight year with a defense-driven 1-0 semifinal win over Lower Dauphin on Tuesday night.


HERSHEY - It's incredibly hard to hold a field hockey team  the caliber of Lower Dauphin to zero shots and zero corners in a half.

But Palmyra did it on Tuesday night.

It's almost unfathomably difficult to beat a storied, respected program like LD six consecutive times.

But Palmyra did it on Tuesday night.

And it's just off the charts in terms of degree of difficulty to play in a state championship game three years in a row.

But Palmyra is going to do it on Saturday.

With a defensive performance that won't soon be forgotten, the Cougars clamped down on LD for 60 remarkable minutes on Tuesday night, blanking their backyard rival 1-0 in an epic PIAA 3A semifinal clash at Milton Hershey School.

Now 22-2, the Cougars jumped to a quick lead when Jess Dembrowski blasted Nicole Shank's corner insert through a thicket of sticks and into the cage just 4:26 into the game, then vigorously defended that narrow advantage for the remaining 55:34, right down to defender Kylie Bomgardner killing LD's last-ditch corner try with all zeroes on the clock.

The well-earned reward for all that is a state title game rematch with Emmaus, a 1-0 winner over Penn Manor, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Zephyr Sports Complex in Whitehall. Emmaus won last year's title tilt by a 1-0 score in overtime.

"It's a dream. I feel like any minute I'm gonna wake up," said an ultra proud Palmyra head coach, Kristi Costello of returning to the state finals again. "It took me so many years to get here - I never got here as a player - and to be here three years in a row, it's any coach's dream."

And any player's dream, too, as senior midfielder Katelyn Mark, one of the keys to the game-long defensive stand, made crystal clear.

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

And as noted, holding LD (17-6) without a shot for an entire half is a rather amazing feat in itself, but that's exactly what Palmyra did in the 30 minutes prior to the break, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Mark, Lauren Wadas and backs Bomgardner, Kristen Robinson and Olivia Shoemaker.

"If we believed that we could, yeah," Mark said, when asked if she could have imagined shutting LD down like that in the first half. "And I think we believed in ourselves that we could. We came out on fire from the start, and that's what I wanted us to do. That's just impressive in itself."

"No, but our defense has been amazing," was Costello's response to the same question posed to Mark. "Our defenders have been unsung heroes. Cheyenne (Sprecher) is obviously known as a great goalie but that defense we have in front of them, they did a great job."

And they did so under duress after intermission, as Lower Dauphin, not surprisingly, started generating intense heat in Palmyra's defensive zone. They also needed to desperately, since LD was playing some fine defense of its own thanks in part to superb senior mid/back Alli Bitting.

But Palmyra was equal to the challenge each and every time. Most notably courtesy of Bomgardner on the heart-stopping corner at the end, but also with just under 20 minutes left when Wadas came up with a huge defensive save, clearing a ball that was drifting perilously close to the back line.

It's not easy to defend a 1-0 lead for 55-plus minutes but the Cougars did it expertly.

"It was hard," Mark said. "LD is such a respected team for us and it's such great competition. I just think we worked hard together. It was our goal to go out there and have fun, and I think we did that.

"(At the end), it was very stressful. But I know that behind me I have an amazing center back (Bomgardner) and I also know I have the brick wall  between the pipes, Cheyenne, so I had no doubt in my team that we could pull through."

More fun, and stress, await on Saturday. The Cougars wouldn't have it any other way.

"As someone who just loves the sport and loves the game, that's all you can ask for," Costello said, referring to Tuesday night's win but also to what lies ahead. "Of course you want your team to come out on top, but when you're seeing kids compete and play hard and match the intensity of each other, it's awesome."

Palmyra 1, Lower Dauphin 0

Lower Dauphin 0 0 - 0

Palmyra 1 0 - 1

Goals: P - Jess Dembrowski

Assists: P - Nicole Shank

Shots: Palmyra 3, Lower Dauphin 2

Saves: LD- Katie Lammando (1), Alli Bitting (defensive save) P - Cheyenne Sprecher (1 save), Lauren Wadas (defensive save)

Corners: Lower Dauphin 7, Palmyra 5

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