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Houlihan’s Heroes: North Penn senior helps solve Van Pelt, CB West to win PIAA-4A title

The North Penn boys soccer team poses with the PIAA championship trophy after winning the Class 4A final over Central Bucks West on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Austin Hertzog/MediaNews Group)

HERSHEY >> Carter Houlihan didn’t try to stop the tears of joy, he just let them flow.

Everything he had worked for this fall was about to come to fruition and the North Penn senior felt it start to hit home. Thanks to a pair of brilliant goals off his foot and a resilient team effort behind him, Houlihan and the Knights had foiled longtime rival Central Bucks West, which put up the fight of a lifetime, one more time.

This one brought the Knights a state title, thanks to a 2-0 victory Friday night at HersheyPark Stadium on a brace from Houlihan.

“It was hitting me before the final whistle, with 30 seconds left, tears of joy started coming down my face, I went over to one of my best friends Jack Durkin and gave him a big hug, it was just one of the best feelings ever,” Houlihan said. “Four years of so many hours, so much effort, so much grind going into this North Penn team and finally making it happen my senior year, it is emotional.”

North Penn’s Carter Houlihan (14) smiles before receiving his medal from coach Paul Duddy after the Knights’ 2-0 win over Central Bucks West in the PIAA-4A final on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Austin Hertzog/MediaNews Group)

The programs may be rivals, but there’s a long-forged mutual respect between them. Players on both sides are club teammates, or play on the club teams of the other team’s coaches and most grew up in some capacity playing against each other.

So even with two wins over CB West this season, the Knights (25-1-0) didn’t just walk into the concrete citadel in Hershey and expect to win. The Bucks (14-8-5), themselves authoring a postseason run for the ages, came in brimming with confidence and fully prepared to be the side leaving with the trophy.

If any of them lacked confidence, they could easily find it in senior keeper Ryan Van Pelt, who put together a monumental performance Friday.

“We knew coming into the game they had two dynamic players, one in the midfielder and one who would drift out wide or up top and we knew we had to handle them,” Van Pelt said. “Facing them two times in the regular season definitely helped us prepare for it, but we just didn’t do enough I guess.”

Not two minutes into the game, Knights senior Ryan Stewart had already put a shot on frame and Van Pelt was there to deny it. By halftime, Van Pelt would have seven saves but his best efforts were still to come in finishing with 10 stops.

Twice in the second half, the senior denied headers from North Penn’s Mike Chaffee on the doorstep of the goal. Van Pelt’s second save on Chaffee defied belief, as the keeper somehow managed to extend his right arm and palm away the header while sliding the opposite direction.

“I just try to make sure I’m always ready for a shot, always focused and do whatever I can to help pump my boys out,” Van Pelt said. “I was a little behind, a little late coming out and I knew I had to make a save to help my boys.”

Having survived North Penn throwing everything short of the appliances in the stadium at goal in the first half, the Bucks came out inspired in the second half.

“There was a great spark there, the way we came out in the second half was more of the way we wanted to play and we did more of what we wanted to do,” West coach Stefan Szygiel said. “We had a couple decent chances and they held strong. So, they did what we did, they just did it for longer and that’s the reality when you come up against a team with that much attacking firepower, it’s bend don’t break but we eventually broke.

“Certainly, we were written off before we ready to be written off. But, No. 14 (Houlihan), he’s going to produce something special and boy, did he tonight.”

North Penn’s Josh Jones celebrates with fans after the Knights’ s 2-0 win over Central Bucks West in the PIAA-4A final on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Austin Hertzog/MediaNews Group)

Szygiel noted and Houlihan readily agreed North Penn is not a one-man show. While the senior forward delivered the two moments of brilliance, he wasn’t the one in the back clearing ball after ball while West was making its push or soaring into the air like Josh Jones in the middle to win header after header.

Jones said the Knights were confident at halftime despite not being able to beat Van Pelt. The towering junior midfielder said the team felt a goal was coming and they just had to refrain from getting too anxious.

This fall was Jones’ first state playoff experience and for the midfielder, who ended his summer with a training stint at Real Madrid, accomplishing the ultimate goal hadn’t yet set in.

“I’m still speechless, I still can’t believe we actually did this, I can’t believe we got it done,” Jones said. “It was amazing, it just shows any team can be beaten on any night in states and you have to bring your best game each time. Going in with that attitude like we did each time definitely helped.”

The run ended a win short of storybook ending, but it doesn’t detract from West accomplished over the past month-plus. From No. 23 seed in the District 1 tournament, a penalty kick shootout to win the final state bid from the district, roadtrips and more PKs in the semifinals, it’s something the team will appreciate with time.

“It’s definitely been a magical ride, I can’t talk for anybody else but this has been my favorite memory of soccer all time,” Van Pelt said. “It definitely hurts right now but I think in a week or two, we’ll be able to be proud of what we were able to do.”

North Penn still needed a score to win, so the Knights looked to Houlihan and as he’s done all season, the forward came through. West’s record in overtime and penalties had certainly caught Houlihan’s eye and the senior said the longer his side went without a goal, the more confident the Bucks would become.

“Honestly, it was my drive to win the game,” Houlihan said. “We’ve had three rough years before this, with what I looked at as disappointing seasons and this is what I wanted most for this team. That winning drive made me go the extra step and the extra mile.”

North Penn’s Carter Houlihan, right, is congratulated after scoring his second goal against Central Bucks West in the PIAA-4A final on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019 in Hershey. (Austin Hertzog/MediaNews Group)

With a shade less than 17 minutes to play, he finally broke through. Even with Van Pelt saving everything in sight, Houlihan didn’t try to make it too complicated.

“I saw people on the left side so I had them clear out of the way to get rid of the extra defenders and get a one-on-one,” Houlihan said. “I beat him to the left and I saw a good opportunity to shoot and took it.

“I like to trust myself, I’ve scored many goals this season and I think changing it up in the state final isn’t the right thing to do.”

Houlihan tucked his shot into the far corner from about 18 yards out, giving the Knights the lead. North Penn made a couple tactical adjustments but Houlihan would provide the nail with 1:35 left in the game. A quick restart gifted the senior the ball on his foot and he carried it across the box before putting it away.

Friday night was just the final cap on an incredible few months for Houlihan, who is heading to Lafayette next year. The senior was part of the Lehigh Valley United U19 team that won the United States Youth Soccer club national title in July then helped his team complete the rare treble of a conference title, district title and state title.

“You can’t process it, it’s just good thing after good thing after good thing,” Houlihan said. “At some point, you think it’s going to stop and it just hasn’t for me yet. It’s a great feeling. I just want to thank the coaches, they put so many hours into this, so much trust and faith in me and I love them.”

NORTH PENN 0 2 – 2
Goals: NP – Carter Houlihan 2

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