Palmyra wide receiver Mitchell Cooper has been a bright spot for the Cougars this season, amassing 30 catches - good enough for second in Lebanon County -
Palmyra wide receiver Mitchell Cooper has been a bright spot for the Cougars this season, amassing 30 catches - good enough for second in Lebanon County - for 465 yards and four touchdowns. (LEBANON DAILY NEWS JEREMY LONG)
PALMYRA - The Palmyra football team will face a significant challenge Friday night when it squares off with neighboring rival Hershey in a Mid-Penn Keystone Division matchup at 7 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.

What else is new? The Cougars have faced nothing but significant challenges since a magical 2011 season highlighted by an epic triple-overtime win over Manheim Central in the opening round of the District Three Class AAA playoffs.

That memorable fall was followed by the graduation of a sizeable senior class that helped make that playoff run possible and a corresponding move up to the ultra powerful Keystone Division as part of Mid-Penn realignment.

The net result of that imperfect storm was an 0-10 2012 campaign with an undermanned squad and a 13-game losing streak that stretched into this season before ending two weeks ago when the Cougars squeaked past Donegal, 31-30.

Given all that, one might assume that this past season and a half has been a miserable time for Palmyra football. But that would in many ways be an incorrect assumption.

The Cougars (1-3, 0-1 Keystone) are building back up again and making progress, even if the win-loss column doesn't reflect it.

"I think the future looks good, and the here-and-now I think looks good," Palmyra coach Chris Pope said, following a spirited practice session Wednesday afternoon. "It's really made our team close. I just like their attitude. They could sit in the corner and whine about it, but they're not. We're out here working each week and seeing what we can do. I just feel like we're doing the right things here."

Pope's optimism is not unfounded. After trying to survive with roughly 25 players a season ago, Palmyra's roster numbers are up closer to 40 this time around.

And after two seasons of running the Keystone Division gauntlet, the Cougars are slated to return to their former, more suitable home in the Capital Division when the Mid-Penn again realigns for the 2014-15 season.

Combine that with some promising underclassmen on the scene, including junior quarterback Michael Lewis and classmate wide receiver Mitchell Cooper, and Palmyra's better days may not be too far in the future.

"It was a tough year last year with the transition," Pope said. "Especially with the limited numbers we had. That really, really constrained us. I applauded that team for the way they handled themselves and the way they fought in every game.

"We have a few more numbers this year, and we have some younger guys that have a lot of enthusiasm and a great upside. And we have veteran players (Joey Hess, Sam Beecher) that have been through the grind of the Keystone Division. If you look at us on video, I think each week we've gotten better in some aspect of our game."

Of course, Palmyra would dearly love for that progress to continue against Hershey, which is off to a 3-1 start but coming off a lopsided loss to Cedar Cliff a week ago. Easier said than done, though, for the Cougars, who figure to have their hands full with a Trojans squad led by quarterback Jesse Campbell and big-play running back Jailen Harmon.

"Besides Annville, Palmyra would look at Hershey as the rival," Pope said. "I know there's gonna be that little extra there when we go over (to the stadium). But every game is a big game to us. I just keep on driving home that, 'we want to be better this week than we were last week.' That's the thing, getting better."

"If you play the best you can play and you've improved, that's all you can ask for.

If we get it, we get it. If not, there's another week. We'll just keep working."

Also on the docket this week for Lebanon County football teams:

Lebanon at Manheim Central, 7 p.m.

Based on the first four weeks, the Cedars look to be for real, trading in a dismal 0-10 2012 season for a highly encouraging 3-1 start led by the dynamic both-sides-of-the-ball play of seniors Mark Pyles and Jeremy De La Cruz.

But here comes mighty Manheim Central, whose presence on the other side of the ball on Friday should provide Lebanon with the chance to find out just how for real it is.

It won't be easy. Central is off to a scary 4-0 start, having racked up a whopping 192 points while taking Warwick, Hempfield, Daniel Boone and Elizabethtown to the woodshed.

These Cedars are tight-knit and scrappy, though, and have done nothing yet to warrant counting them out in this one.

Cedar Crest at Wilson, 7 p.m.

After enduring some early struggles to win close games, the Falcons got over the hump last week with a gut-check 32-19 Section One-opening win over Warwick.

It was an important step toward a return to week-in, week-out legitimacy for Tom Waranavage's club (2-2, 1-0 Section One) and provided some positive momentum heading into this week's clash with the Bulldogs.

Wilson, as usual, looks like the team to beat in Section One and is off to a 4-0 start after thumping McCaskey, 45-7, last week.

The Falcons have some firepower, though, and have yet to score less than 28 points in a game. It's a different Cedar Crest team than the one Wilson has been used to facing in recent years, but it's still asking quite a lot to expect the Falcons to go into West Lawn and steal one.

Elco at Garden Spot

Just the Raiders' luck: They finally get on the board after an 0-3 start and blitzing Pequea Valley for their first win and now have to head to New Holland and face a Garden Spot club that figures to be mad as a hornet.

The Spartans (3-1, 0-1 Section Three) were everybody's favorite to walk away with the Section Three crown before Donegal upended them last week to throw the title race into disarray.

Which suddenly makes this a huge game for the Raiders, who could throw their hat into the section race with a win this week.

Won't be easy, but Elco is starting to put the pieces together offensively, as evidenced by sophomore quarterback Jeff Martin's 306 passing yards and three touchdown tosses last week.

Northern Lebanon at Pequea Valley, 7 p.m.

The Vikings are feeling a lot better about themselves after halting an 11-game losing streak with last week's 33-26 defeat of Annville-Cleona.

They'll be feeling even happier if they can start a more positive streak this week against the Braves, who figure to still be smarting from the 55-28 beatdown Elco put on them last week.

Big opportunity here for the Vikes (1-3, 1-0 Section Three), who could go from hapless losers of 11 straight to a Section Three contender with a win this week.

Forcing six turnovers - as it did against A-C - would aid in that cause, as would another big effort from running backs Derek DiAngelis and Dominic Trader, who both eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in the victory over the Little Dutchmen.

Annville-Cleona at Tamaqua, 7 p.m.

Here's a guess that A-C (0-4) spent some time this week on ball security after six costly turnovers in the loss to Northern Lebanon.

But even holding onto the ball better this week doesn't guarantee success, particularly if quarterback Mitch Rodkey is still bothered by an ankle injury. And a formidable non-league schedule doesn't get any easier with Coal Region rep Tamaqua on the slate this week.

The Blue Raiders are only 2-2, but its losses have come to 3-1 Jim Thorpe and 4-0 Mahanoy Area. Plus, a long road trip doesn't seem to be the cure for what ails A-C at this point.