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North Penn earns redemption, returns to top of District 1

TOWAMENCIN >> Friday night was about making up for what North Penn coach Dick Beck called “the worst half of football I’ve ever been standing on the sidelines for.”

That description was for the second half of last season’s District 1-4A final — the last time the Knights had been on the losing end of a game. After leading Upper Dublin 21-17 at halftime, the Cardinal ran away in the final 24 minutes to hand North Penn a 46-21 defeat.

“I think that was a bad taste in their mouth. Not just by the way we played, but how we kind of acted at the end of the game,” Beck said. “I think everybody was really, really embarrassed. They kind of wanted to redeem themselves this year.”

With 13 straight wins since then, the Knights gave themselves that chance and they did not waste it, ending a five-year district title drought with a 48-38 victory over Garnet Valley in the Class 6A final at Crawford Stadium.

PETE BANNAN-DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA North Penn #55Matt Bevan celebrates the district title Friday night after the Knights 48-38 win over Garnet Valley at Crawford Stadium.

North Penn Matt Bevan (55) celebrates after the Knights’ 48-38 win over Garnet Valley in the District 1-6A final at Crawford Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

“Last year, losing to Upper Dublin it was disappointing for us,” North Penn senior quarterback Reece Udinski said. “And coming back as seniors we knew that this was our year and the group of guys that we have in the senior class has just been amazing. They put all of their effort into this season and we just want to make it special.”

The victory earned North Penn its seventh district crown in Beck’s 15 seasons with the Knights, the first since beating Council Rock South 34-14 in the AAAA final in 2011. North Penn missed the postseason the next year, fell to Neshaminy in the district final in 2013, lost to West Chester Henderson in the playoff opener in 2014 then lost to Upper Dublin in last season’s district title game.

But now the Knights are back on top.

“I’m so happy for the kids. They put so much time and effort into it. For it to come to fruition like this is very special for me because I know the kids it’s so important for them to, as we say, finish” Beck said. “And to get this championship, I told the kids they’re never going to take away. It’s never gets old and it’s never easy.”

The win also pushes North Penn’s record to an unblemished 14-0 for the third time under Beck. The Knights did it first in 2003 on the way to claiming the PIAA 4A crown then again in 2008 when they reached the state semifinals.

“It’s awesome. After last year didn’t go our way, as soon as the season ended we wanted to get here as fast as we could,” senior tight end/defensive end Nick Vasger said. “We just did a great job, I’m really happy we did what we had to do in this game.”

Garnet Valley, which pulled three straight upsets in reaching the district final — defeating previously unbeaten Neshaminy and Perkiomen Valley the previous three rounds – gave North Penn one of its toughest tests. The Jaguars’ 38 points — boosted by a fumble and interception TD returns by their defense  — were the most the Knights have allowed this season. But every effort by GV and its triple-option offense to get within striking distance after going down 21-0 was met by Udinski and the Knights’ air attack.

“We try to preach the running and passing game to be the balanced offense, so if one’s not working we got another one to go to,” Udinski said. “So tonight, our passing game was what we leaned on and my receivers stepped up big and it was just a great night.”

Udinski was simply phenomenal against Garnet Valley’s unrelenting pressure, completing 23-of-28 passes for 444 yards, easily eclipsing his previous season best of 367 he posted in Week 6 against Central Bucks South. He tossed four touchdown passes, the first two on long passes in the first quarter to Nick Dillon and Ricky Johns, the last two going to Vasger.

PETE BANNAN-DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA North Penn #8 Ricky Johns celebrates a 50 yard pass reception in the Knights 48-38 win over Garnet Valley at Crawford Stadium.

North Penn Ricky Johns (8) celebrates a 50-yard pass reception in the Knights’ 48-38 win over Garnet Valley in the District 1-6A final at Crawford Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

Udinski struck on the game’s opening series, rolling left and heaving a pass downfield for Dillon, who hauled in a pass as his defender lost his footing and raced in for a 65-yard TD strike for a 7-0 lead.

“I kind of just had to scramble out and saw him deep,” Udinski said. “Kind of just put it up in the air and he made a tremendous play. And that’s all him.”

North Penn’s advantage doubled just 2:56 later when Udinski hit a streaking Johns down the sideline for an 83-yard touchdown.

“Ricky just doing his thing,” Udinski said. “One-on-one coverage, that’s going to be hard to stop him.”

Garnet Valley could not stop the Johns then or throughout the game, the West Virginia commit catching eight balls for 209 yards. He also added a 28-yard touchdown run that made it 48-31 with 8:38 left in the fourth.

“You have to have confidence, so I came out here confident, always great to be confident about your game,” Johns said. “So, I tell Reece just to throw the ball up and I’ll make a play.”

A Dillon seven-yard touchdown run had the Knights up 21-0 after a quarter but two quick touchdowns by Garnet Valley had the margin down the seven with 8:30 to go in the first half. But the Knights answered, Udinski connecting with Vasger in the end zone from six yards out at 3:24.

The closest the Jaguars could get after that was 10 on Joe Thomas’ 45-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:52 left in the fourth.

Garnet Valley dinged  North Penn’s defense for two long touchdowns runs in the second half — Nick Juliano from 34 yards out in the third, Jacob Buttermore in the fourth coming from 27 yards — but held the Jaguars to 130 yards on their 40 other carries.

“A couple times they started stacking up first downs on us and then we’d shut them down and get them to punt, which is real good,” Vasger said. “But we tried to keep them from stacking up first downs, cause football’s a momentum game and we just tried to keep the momentum going our way.”

And the Knights’ way Friday night was adding another District 1 trophy to their collection while moving two wins away from a state championship.

“The journey’s been amazing, the kids have been great and I think that they want to keep going on,” Beck said.

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