NEWTOWN >> Playing for third is the last thing any team wants to be doing.
It means that team lost in the semifinals and someone else is playing for the title it wanted so badly. But, at least in recent history in the World Cup, a third place game in soccer can still be really, really good. Just put two teams of the caliber of Council Rock North and North Penn on the same field and something good will come of it.
There actually was something to play for, aside from the seeding, for both teams despite having locked up their PIAA Class AAAA tournament bids. Neither really wanted to go into states on a two-game losing skid and even with La Salle awaiting the winner, it was a challenge the two teams would have taken.
In the end, it was North Penn working through a 2-1 victory in the District 1 consolation game on a chilly evening at Rock North on Saturday.
“It was huge, we want to go into states on the right foot,” North Penn senior midfielder and captain Mike Kohler said. “We might have lost a little momentum (in a 2-1 semifinal loss) to Conestroga but we got it right back here, which is so important.”
In the first half, it was the hosts who looked like they wanted it more and they did. CR North was on the wrong side of a lopsided score against West Chester Henderson in their district semi and even though Henderson won the district title on Saturday, the Indians wanted to right their ship as well.
The Rock North coaches were stunned when they didn’t get a penalty kick on an apparent foul in the North Penn box in the first half but otherwise saw a lot to like from their side. Grant Bonas, Conor O’Donnell, Nick Guarna and Nikita Ilin all had some quality moments on offense during the match.
“It was a lot better than the other night,” North coach Joe Stackhouse said. “Henderson beat Conestoga who was in all these polls, No. 1 in the country. The other night was a perfect storm, we didn’t play anywhere near our capabilities and they executed everything. This is a tough game to play for both teams, we’re third; we’re fourth, either way we’re still playing on Tuesday.”
North Penn’s problem in the first half was one of direction. The Knights were playing too fast, not maintaining possession and playing far too direct, which isn’t their game. At the half, the coaches got the guys together and talked about those things and after halftime, it was more like North Penn.
Freshman Carter Houlihan played in central midfield on Saturday and was simply excellent. Houlihan has been swapping between center back and defensive mid the last few weeks, depending on matchup. He said it’s an adjustment, but he’s getting more comfortable.
“I thought I did well handling the ball,” Houlihan said. “The first half I came out a little shaky but at halftime, Coach (Paul Duddy) gave me a good talk and I came out, didn’t have any nerves and played pretty well. We were more relaxed.”
After an initial surge by CR North, the Knights began to press back and broke through early in the frame. Kohler whipped a shot across goal that seemed to be well wide until it hit a Rock North defender and took a cruel turn into the back of the net with 33:34 left.
That really got the Knights going with Nate Baxter pushing a pair of shots wide and Aiden Jerome forcing Anthony Caruso into a save on a header. Caruso had a couple of big stops on the night, including one two minutes in off an absolute screamer of a free kick by Kohler.
North Penn won a throw deep in Indians territory, allowing Houlihan to give it a strong heave into the box. There, forward Luke McMahon had a gem of a goal when he was able to turn on the ball and get a good leg behind it for a one-time strike into the net with 26:05 left.
“We told them just to go back to what we do best with moving the ball and possessing,” Duddy said. “We possessed it more and that opens up more chances.
“It was a great finish. (Kohler) does a lot for us, and a lot of guys do, but Luke gets goals for us and he’s had a great season.”
The Knights seemed to have the game in hand and began to pull some key guys with less than 10 minutes left. Then, the officials called the Knights for a foul in the box off a corner and gave CR North the PK it had wanted so badly in the first half.
North Penn keeper Bobby Dean made a tremendous save on Jon Pugh’s penalty take but his teammates froze and allowed North’s Sean Finneyfrock to slide in and knock home the second chance.
“It’s hard for these kids, I give them a lot of credit because they’re playing a lot of games real fast,” Stackhouse said. “It’s all these kids, North Penn, everybody. It’s a lot of games real fast without a break and again, they’re kids, they’re not men yet. “
That brought the Knights starters in and they saw out the game. Rock North will face Emmaus in the first round and Stackhouse said he likes his team’s chances in that matchup.
North Penn meanwhile will get a second crack at La Salle. The teams met on the Explorers’ home field in September with La Salle taking a 1-0 win in a high-level high school game. Houlihan and Kohler both said they’re looking forward to the rematch and getting the experience of their first state game.
“I’m so excited for it,” Kohler said. “It’ll be my first one in my four years and I can’t wait.”
“I can’t wait for it,” Houlihan said. “Everyone has been coming up to us at school and asking about it, the whole team is excited and the coaches are excited. I think we deserve it.”
NORTH PENN 0 2 – 2
COUNCIL ROCK NORTH 0 1 – 1
Goals: NP – Mike Kohler 47’, Luke McMahon (Carter Houlihan) 54’; CRN – Sean Finneyfrock (Jon Pugh) 72’. Shots: NP – 8, CRN – 4. Saves: NP – Bobby Dean 3, CRN – Anthony Caruso 6.