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PIAA semifinals familiar territory for North Penn

North Penn heads to the state semifinals this weekend for the seventh time in its proud history.

The Knights are rolling, undefeated at 14-0 and propelled by a perfect balance of run and pass.

Quarterback Reece Udinski has had the most prolific season in District One history, throwing to big-play guys like wide receiver Ricky Johns while running back Nick Dillon has powered through tacklers for substantial gains on the ground. The Knights have averaged a whopping 43.5 points per playoff contest.

Meanwhile the North Penn defense has limited — and sometimes completely shut down — opponents’ production all season, led by guys like linebackers Dan Drop and Owen Thomas and defensive end Nick Vasger.

North Penn aims for a win Saturday against St. Joe’s Prep (5 p.m., Northeast High) in a highly anticipated PIAA-6A State Semifinal.

Before the teams square off, now would be a perfect time to look back at the six other North Penn squads that made it this far down the postseason road.

2011 Knights: Nearly five years ago to the day, North Penn made the trip to Northeast and came away with a resounding 21-14 win over rival La Salle in the Eastern Final. Not only was the victory satisfying in that it sent the Knights to Hershey, but it was also North Penn’s first win over La Salle in four tries, avenging a 44-27 loss to the Explorers on Opening Day that year. North Penn defense ruled the day in this state semi, led by defensive end Shayne Watson. The Knights offense drove for crucial scores, keyed by quarterback Corey Ernst and fullback Ralph Reeves. Overcoming a rough 1-2 start that year against tough competition, the Knights ran off 12 consecutive victories before falling 14-7 to Central Dauphin in a snowy defensive struggle at HersheyPark Stadium.

Gene Walsh ó Digital First Media North Penn's Jake Hubler during practice for upcoming State Semi-Final game November 30, 2016.

North Penn’s Jake Hubler during the Knights’ practice on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

2010 Knights: In one of the best high school games in state history, North Penn came up just short in a wild, 38-35 contest with La Salle at packed Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. In what was a 13-2 season for NP, the Knights’ only two losses that year came to the Explorers. A passing attack that was starting to find its way with Ernst at the helm, was complemented by the overall versatility of fullback Dom Taggart. The Knights’ most thrilling win of the season came in the form of a 42-6 domination of rival Neshaminy in the district final.

2008 Knights: This was the last time North Penn reached this point in the season with a perfect record still intact. The 14-0 Knights had a high-flying offense with quarterback Justin Davey throwing deep to wide receiver and run threat Ronnie Akins, while the backfield was loaded with two persistent ball carriers in Craig Needhammer and Tyler Smith. And the special teams had quite a weapon in a kicker named Brandon McManus. It took a team as good as the 2015 Knights to surpass the records set by the ‘08 squad. That year, North Penn defeated perennial playoff foe Liberty 23-15 in the season opener but it was the Hurricanes that squeezed out a 21-14 victory in the playoff rematch at Coatesville.

2005 Knights: The Pete Stoll Show guaranteed another a district title for North Penn, his five-touchdown performance on Crawford Stadium’s terrain the cornerstone of a 55-20 thrashing of Downingtown East. The Knights moved on to the Eastern Final to face Liberty on a cold afternoon in Allentown. In what was an evenly-played, hard hitting contest, the only difference came down to North Penn missing an extra point early and being forced to convert a two-pointer later in the game, which it could not. Liberty escaped with a 14-12 victory, with the Knights’ season coming to an end at 13-2.

2003 Knights: North Penn’s state title season included a 38-21 victory over Easton at J. Birney Crum Stadium, in a very satisfying Eastern Final. The Knights averaged 37.6 points per game in their romp through the postseason, climaxed by a 37-10 over Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the state final. North Penn’s ensemble cast of quarterback Adam Hearns, wide receiver Deanco Oliver, running back Kevin Akins (Ronnie’s older brother) and fullback Jim Castertano overwhelmed opponents all season, completing a perfect 15-0 finish. Key members of the squad also included Zach Raffle (tight end/tackle) and Jim Laky (RB), both now assistant coaches with the Knights.

2002 Knights: Dick Beck’s first season as head coach produced the Knights’ first district title and first trip to the Eastern Final. Two heroes that emerged for the Knights were quarterback Justin Wutti and Oliver, who connected three times for scores in a monumental 35-12 upset of top-seeded Downingtown that got the playoff run rolling. The Knights had been primarily a running team all season but the passing attack had come to life. After falling to Neshaminy to drop to 4-2, North Penn earned three consecutive wins to secure the final playoff berth, and went on from there, shocking Downingtown and then following up with wins over Ridley and Interboro. The Knights would fall to Austin Scott-led Parkland in the state semis, but thus began a playoff-rich era for North Penn football, the first of seven district titles and seven trips to the state’s final four.

Top Photo:  North Penn’s Justis Henley during the Knights’ practice on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Gene Walsh/Digital First Media)

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