EAST ROCKHILL >> No matter what happened Wednesday night, the North Penn boys soccer team was going to be Suburban One League Continental Conference champions.
While the Knights have played all season as an unselfish team focused more on results over individual glory, they are a bit selfish when it comes to hardware. Taking the pitch at Helman Field in a three-way tie atop the Continental standings, North Penn needed only a point to clinch an outright title.
Host Pennridge didn’t make it easy, but the Knights again rode their depth, hustle and unselfishness to a 3-0 win and their outright conference title, winning the Continental for the second year in a row.
“It’s a lot of resolve on the part of our seniors, I think,” Knights coach Paul Duddy said. “We had a lot of good young guys come into the program and we’re deep this year. We can play 18 guys and when we put different guys in, we don’t really lose anything.”
The Rams honored their nine seniors before the game and coach Pete Valimont rolled them all out in his starting lineup. Pennridge normally starts eight of its 11 as underclassmen but the seniors were more than up to the task on Wednesday and even had North Penn on its heels in the opening 10 minutes.
Just five minutes in, Rams senior Sebastian Perkowski struck the North Penn (14-2-1, 10-2-0 conference) post on a well-hit free kick and nearly provided the kind of moment the hosts needed. While guys like seniors Evan Free, Cole Rand, Josue Gonzalez and Evan Warner and juniors Aidan Link and Matt Stevenson battled all game, that early moment loomed large.
“Our first 10 minutes have been the toughest for us the past couple of games, we either put ourselves in a hole or we jump on some people and then hold it down a little bit,” Valimont said. “We sneak that goal in, maybe we have a different game or a tighter result but you can’t look back. Our guys fight, we gave a great effort, (North Penn) just outmatched us.”
Duddy credited the Rams(6-11-0, 2-10-0) for their start and the pressure they put his guys under, adding Pennridge’s effort was strong all night.
North Penn’s teamwork and hustle showed on its first goal, which came with 31:37 left in the first half. Sophomore Carter Houlihan played in a cross off the left flank that sailed to the opposite side of the box. Senior midfielder Jack Johnston chased it down on the end line and managed to play it back into the box, where junior Aiden Jerome met it on the far post for the tap-in.
Roughly 80 seconds later, the Knights scored a second after a prolonged build-up in the midfield ended with Jerome slipping the ball to junior striker Luke McMahon for a composed finish. The match was far from done, but the Knights could now settle in and play their game.
Having freshmen, sophomores and juniors playing key roles in all thirds of the field has been a season-long trend for North Penn. After the Knights graduated stalwarts like keeper Bobby Dean, defender Noah Kwortnik, midfielder Nick Terchek, striker Nate Baxter and most notably attacking midfielder Mike Kohler, North Penn had some sizable holes to plug.
“One of the biggest things is the underclassmen who have stepped up this year,” senior defender Matt Farrell said. “Obviously with Mikey leaving, we had a huge hole to fill and those guys have stepped up and filled it. We’re never rebuilding at North Penn.”
“Not to mention, the depth we have on the bench, this year more than ever, I think we’ve been able to sub guys off and put on guys able to replace them just as good,” Johnston said. “They’re able to bring us a spark when we need it.”
Kohler was a dynamic force but it also made the Knights a bit direct through the midfield. While one guy couldn’t replace Kohler, the Knights figured out it was better if numerous guys did it anyway, because as Farrell described it, it let them be a little more free-flowing.
The Knights added a third goal with 14:45 left after another fluid team build-up. Houlihan started the play by charging through two Pennridge tackles, keeping the ball on his foot and finding Brett Katz in space at the top of the box. Katz gave up a chance to shoot and instead passed to his left, finding Ryan Stewart who buried the ball into the net.
Pennridge has one more regular season game but the Rams are most likely going to miss the postseason. However, they return a lot of building blocks starting with Link and Stevenson and Vallimont didn’t think it was out of reach to see his guys winning 10 to 12 games next year if they’re committed to playing as a team.
“We figured out where guys need to be and as long as they play the way they’re capable of next season, we should be fine,” Valimont said. “We’re in the Continental Conference, that’s not going to change, so you build a good schedule around that. We have so many keys guys back, we’re in a good spot. It’s up to all of them deciding to play like they’re brothers the entire season.”
North Penn hosts Upper Dublin on Thursday then heads into the District 1-4A tournament, where it is in line to receive a top-three seed. The Knights were seeded second going into Wednesday’s games.
By the time they took the field at Pennridge, North Penn knew what it needed to do. Central Bucks East topped Central Bucks South 1-0 in overtime earlier in the day to force a three-way tie between the Knights, Patriots and Central Bucks West. The Bucks had already finished their conference schedule while North Penn had yet to play and needed only a point to take the title.
Of course, they weren’t going to settle for a draw.
“After our first loss, we were 1-1 and we had to decide if we were going to win out or just be a 50/50 team,” Farrell said. “At that point, we all decided we were going to go for it.”
“We had a streak of eight straight wins that put us on the train to success and brought us to where we are,” Johnston said. “Losing to East was tough, but we knew if we won out, there was no way we could lose the conference.”
North Penn finished third in District 1 and made the second round of the state tournament last season and this group has now turned its eyes from a conference title to a similar run.
“We’re looking to do as well, if not better,” Johnston said.
NORTH PENN 3, PENNRIDGE 0
NORTH PENN 2 1 – 3
PENNRIDGE 0 0 – 0
Goals: NP – Aiden Jerome (Jack Johnston), Luke McMahon (Jerome), Ryan Stewart (Brett Katz). Shots: NP – 8, P – 2. Saves: NP – Jake Millevoi 1; P – Adam Gurysh 5. Corners: NP – 1, P – 1.