MILLERSVILLE - The Palmyra field hockey team has two very challenging tests yet to ace before it can claim the District Three Class AA championship it so desperately desires.
But the Cougars have already passed the eyeball test with flying colors.
No, top-seeded Palmyra isn't a district champion just yet, but it sure looked like one Saturday during a 5-0 quarterfinal demolition of Berks Catholic at Penn Manor's Comet Field.
On the way to improving to 19-1 and advancing to Tuesday's semifinal round against fellow perennial power Lancaster Mennonite, a 1-0 winner over Northern York on Saturday, the Cougars turned in a thoroughly dominant performance, holding the Berks County reps without a shot for the full 60 minutes of the contest.
Meanwhile, the Cougars were sharp as the proverbial tack offensively, taking control for good midway through the first half when Katie Dembrowski and Haley Bova scored 53 seconds apart and keeping command behind a near-flawless passing and possession game.
In short, it was a clinic disguised as a district quarterfinal and stood in noticeable contrast to a somewhat choppy first-round defeat of Hamburg on Tuesday that had the Cougars less than thrilled with their own performance.
"Very focused," said Palmyra head coach Kristi Costello, describing her squad's performance. "I think mentally our team was very prepared for today. They definitely came here on a mission to continue; this is the (round) we got knocked out in last year. Their goal is a district championship, so they were very focused, and I thought they were very sharp today."
To say the least. Though the Saints (16-6) were feisty and physical, Palmyra was simply too good to be bothered by it, pulling ahead to stay when Dembrowski slammed in Kiley Gallagher's corner insert with 14:15 left in the opening half.
The Cougars then knocked Berks Catholic to one knee when Bova scored at 13:22 off an assist from freshman Jess Dembrowski on the way to a 2-0 halftime lead and an 8-0 first-half edge in shots and penalty corners.
The Saints were then put on their backs after the break by Kendall Kreider's early rebound goal and subsequent scores by Katie Dembrowski -- on a penalty stroke -- and Erin Huffman on another rebound score with a little over six minutes left.
"I think just the ball movement that we were able to have today," Costello said, when asked what impressed her most about the Cougars' performance. "Just the two-touch and the girls working together. I thought the ball movement in the circle was really good, too, and that's how we were able to execute on a lot of goals. The passing was just really sharp and really on."
And on those occasions when the Saints did venture into Palmyra's defensive zone, they didn't get to stick around very long. In addition to not putting an official shot on Palmyra goalie Nicole Berger, Catholic managed just three penalty corners and didn't earn its first until midway through the second half.
Senior back Megan Soucy spearheaded the Cougars' defensive work with several high-quality open-field tackles, but much of the Saints' offensive futility stemmed from the fact they just couldn't get possession of the ball very often.
"They're a very threatening team, and we knew that," Costello said of Berks Catholic, which pounded Bermudian Springs 8-1 in the first round. "So that's why we were trying to prepare to make tackles outside the circle so they weren't able to earn corners on us. And the ball movement kinda eliminated them from getting the ball, so we weren't engaging in one-on-one battles. I thought we did a good job with that."
In addition to keeping its district title hopes in play, Saturday's win also assured Palmyra of a berth in the upcoming PIAA state playoffs. Despite its district quarterfinal loss last year, the Cougars still qualified for states through the consolation round and would have had the same chance had they stumbled Saturday.
But when you expect as much of yourself as the highly-competitive Cougars do, storming in the front door sure beats sneaking in the back way.
"We're staying focused on our district championship goal," Costello said. "But obviously we never want to take anything for granted, and it's just a good relief to know (you're going to states) when you have a lot of seniors on your team. Any year when you have a lot of seniors on your team, you want to go as far as you can. So at least we know we'll have three more games to play and hopefully more beyond that."