PHILADELPHIA >> Having already faced La Salle once already this season – and came away with a loss – North Penn’s Mike Kohler knew what would be the difference in their PIAA Class AAAA first round game Friday night.
“We definitely knew what to expect coming into the game. We knew we had to get the first goal,” Kohler said. “It was really both teams are so good defensively when you go down to either us or La Salle it’s going to be an uphill climb.”
That proved to be the formula for the Knights to earn their way to the state quarters. Kohler converted a penalty kick after getting fouled in La Salle’s 18-yard box early in the first half and the North Penn defense made the goal hold up for 70-plus minutes to edge the Explorers 1-0 at Northeast’s Charles Martin Memorial Stadium.
“Coach (Paul) Duddy has never had a state win and that’s really unfortunately because he’s such a great coach, so really doing this for him,” Kohler said. “He hasn’t had the most success in states but we’re trying to change that.”
BOYS #SOCCER: Mike Kohler scores on a PK to give @KnightsLoyalty a 1-0 lead 1H over La Salle. The goal gave NP a 1-0 win in state 1st round. pic.twitter.com/Ig84B3Ibb6
— Mike Cabrey (@mpcabrey) November 9, 2016
North Penn, making its first PIAA appearance since 2004 after finishing third in District 1, moves on to face District 1 champ West Chester Henderson in the quarters Saturday at a place and time to be determined. Henderson defeated District 3 third-place side Cumberland Valley 6-2.
“I don’t know a whole lot about them, but if they beat Conestoga, they must be pretty, pretty good,” said Duddy of Henderson.
La Salle beat North Penn 1-0 on Sept. 24 but Tuesday the Explorers could not break through the Knights’ backline of Noah Kwortnik, Jack Johnston, Christain Snyder and Eric Szilagyi. The Explorers’ best opportunities to score came on free kicks, but most of them they could not get on the frame of the goal.
“In the beginning of the game, we were just trying to close to gaps and stuff between the midfield. We were trying to get our midfielders up into the attack and I think that was good because we got Mike and Carter up,” Kwortnik said. “But after we scored the goal, we basically wanted to keep the pressure up, we wanted to try and get a second goal or a third goal. And I think we were getting close.
“As we went into the second half, they added extra pressure onto their offense and that gave us a lot more (to defend), we had to drop a few players back just so we could effectively take their counterattack. But also after that, they had two or three defenders in the back and I think that opened up a lot of gaps for our outfield midfielders as well as our attackers.”
La Salle, the Philadelphia Catholic League and District 12 champ, finishes the season at 18-2-2. The Explorers were play in their first PIAA tournament since 2012 when they reached the AAA semifinals
“Once you get the Round of 16 here, there’s only really going to be one happy team at the end of these two weeks,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffery said. “And just tried to remind our guys of what they accomplished and winning the league for the first time in four years, a district championship is great and they lost to a really good team tonight.
“We battled them earlier in the year, they’re even teams and it was a really good soccer game, which is good. Glad we didn’t lay an egg.”
Kohler tallied the game’s lone goal in the eighth minute, the senior fouled in the box for the PK after making a run from the right sideline.
“I saw him coming into a strong tackle so I was able to take a touch by him and he just took me out,” he said.
Kohler sent his penalty into the left side of the net – La Salle keeper Brett Werner guessing left – to put the Knights up 1-0 at 32:31.
“I tried not to get into in to my head, the keeper, so I just picked my spot and went to it,” Kohler said.
North Penn pushed for a second strike in minutes after Kohler’s goal, but send two shots high. La Salle’s top chance to tie in the first half came on a free kick from 45 yards out when Michael D’Angelo got a free header but the effort went wide left.
Werner preserved the one-goal margin with a strong second half. He grabbed a free ball in the box before Luke McMahon could pound on it then denied a Nate Baxter shot after Baxter sped behind the La Salle defense.
Free kicks again gave La Salle its best looks at an equalizer. James Natale’s headed a ball wide right while another restart saw a ball bounced through the box before a shot that went off-target at the right post.
“When we’re in their end, they’re going to have a hard time scoring. So sometimes the best defense a good offense,” Kohler said. “And it was able to release some pressure of our defense so they could get a breather too.”
North Penn keeper Bobby Dean corralled a ball in the air off after La Salle free kick was deflected then stopped a shot at the near post after the Explorers played a short corner.
“The 18 seemed to be the wall that weren’t going to be allowed to get by,” McCaffery said. “And so they held strong there and even though we were able to bring it a little bit there in the second half, they did a great job of holding their lines and with a great keeper behind them, who did a really job again tonight, it was just hard to break down.
“And that’s the puzzle you got to figure out. Unfortunately we were out of time and couldn’t get it.”