North Penn Falls in Classic State Semifinal Battle With St. Joe's Prep

North Penn fell to St. Joe’s Prep 35-25 in Saturday’s PIAA Class 6A semifinal contest. Photos courtesy of Jesse Garber ( John Gleeson. Check back for a complete gallery of Gleeson’s photos.
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PHILADELPHIA – The cheer to close out North Penn’s brief postgame meeting was a familiar one.

“What time is it? Knight time.”

This time, however, there was a definite feeling of finality. The Knights – for the first time in a remarkable season – came up short, falling to St. Joe’s Prep 35-25 in Saturday night’s PIAA Class 6A semifinal game.

But the final score doesn’t begin to tell the story of this one. Nor does it tell just how close the Knights came to answering the pleas of a passionate Knight fan who – even before the opening kickoff – shouted, “Let’s go, North Penn. Shock the World.”

Coach Dick Beck – when asked how this year’s team is going to be remembered – paid his 2016 squad the ultimate compliment.

“This team will be special in my heart forever,” the Knights’ coach said. “What they’ve done this year – I don’t want to say second to none because in 2003 we won the state championship, but it’s pretty (darn) close.”

The Knights closed out a stellar season with a 14-1 record and the District One 6A and SOL Continental Conference championships, but even more impressive than those titles was the team’s relentless will to win against a favored Hawk squad that boasts one of the nation’s top players in Georgia commit D’Andre Swift.

“Swift is amazing,” North Penn senior captain Jake Hubler said. “But we went out there and played as a team. All my brothers – we went out there and we played like a team.

“We just kept going, we wouldn’t stop fighting.”

And that is how this year’s North Penn squad will always be remembered by the wildly enthusiastic fans who packed Northeast High’s Charles Martin Memorial Stadium on a cold and windy December night.

“I told the guys – they left it all on the (field),” Beck said. “Everybody left it on the field.

“Obviously, the way it ended was very sad, but the guts that these guys showed tonight – play after play…”

The Knights – who trailed 14-7 at halftime – began to impose their will on the Hawks in the third quarter.  After stopping the Hawks on fourth down, the Knights took over on their own 33. Ricky Johns made a leaping grab of a Reece Udinski pass on third-and-long, turning it into a 27-yard gain and a first down on the Hawks’ 30-yard line. On the very next play, Udinski – rolling to his left – threw into the end zone where Justis Henley made an impressive grab in front of his defender for a touchdown that knotted the score.

“I just rolled out and threw it up to him, and he just made a tremendous play,” Udinski said.

According to Beck, it wasn’t quite as easy as the senior quarterback made it sound.

“Someone said, ‘Great game plan,’ and I was like, ‘Great game plan? No,’” the Knights’ coach said. “We would call a play, and it would break down.

“Reece would be running all over the place and throw a strike, and Justis would make a great catch or Ricky would make a great catch.”

On the Hawks’ ensuing possession, the Knights’ defense held, and when Owen Verespy blocked the punt, the Knights had the ball on the Hawks’ 40.

Back-to-back 13-yard completions to Anthony Andrews and Johns took the ball to Prep’s 14-yard line, but that’s where the drive stalled. The Knights settled for a 28-yard Mcnamara field goal that gave them their first lead of the game with 22 seconds remaining in the quarter (17-14).

The Hawks – or more specifically Swift – had an immediate answer, marching 60 yards with Swift taking it in from 27 yards out to put the Prep back on top, 21-17. It looked as the Hawks might have sealed the Knights’ fate after their defense held on fourth-and-one at North Penn’s 40, and five plays later, Swift took it in from 12 yards out to give the Prep a 28-17 lead with 7:48 remaining.

“He’s one of the best I’ve seen ever with the ball in his hands,” Beck said of Swift, who ran for 271 yards and four touchdowns.

The Knights needed just over a minute to complete a 67-yard scoring drive of their own. The touchdown drive was capped when Nick Dillon turned a screen pass into a 37-yard touchdown. On the two-point conversion attempt, Udinski – rolling right – found Johns in the back of the end zone, and with 6:27 remaining, the Knights trailed by just three (28-25).

“We kind of had to preach that all year – (facing) adversity and bouncing back,” Udinski said. “We haven’t been down a lot this year, but we knew this was going to be the toughest game by far, so we just wanted to come in mentally prepared.

“No matter what, we were going to play our best.”

With their season riding on the line, the Knights’ defense delivered, stopping the Hawks on fourth down when Johns deflected a pass intended for Swift out of harm’s way.

“Ricky making that play on the fourth down on Swift on the deflection – that’s a big-time play,” Beck said.

“If we get stopped on a drive, you can’t hang your head,” Hubler added. “The defense has to come out – we’ve got to stop them and bring the offense back out, and I think we did that well tonight.”

The Knights were on the move and appeared heading for the go-ahead score, but a fumble at the Hawks’ 24 set the stage for another Swift TD in the closing seconds. An extraordinary season had come to an emotional end for the Knights.

“I’m going to remember that my family – everyone around me – we didn’t quit,” Hubler said. “We just kept going hard, no stopping.”

Udinski - who threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns in his final high school game – offered similar sentiments.

“It was unbelievable,” he said of the season. “Being in the North Penn program two years – the first year we came up short of a district championship.

“Being able to come back and win the district championship and play the game we did with this atmosphere – it’s memories I’ll never forget.”

“I was proud of the guys,” Beck said. “We played hard all night, and we had a shot to win it at the end. We just came up a little short.”

St. Joe’s Prep (13-0) will face Pittsburgh Central Catholic in next Saturday’s state title game. Central Catholic crushed Wilson 63-21 in the Western Final.

EXTRA POINTS:  While Swift reached the 4,000-yard rushing mark for his career in the fourth quarter, Udinski surpassed a milestone of his own, closing out a brilliant senior campaign with 4,093 passing yards. Beck was asked what it’s been like to coach a player like Udinski. “It’s basically been a dream for me,” the Knights’ coach said. “He’d be the first one to tell you he doesn’t have a great year without those receivers, without the ‘O’ line blocking. He was amazing, and he was an absolute joy to coach.”…Beck also had high praise for his defense. “Defensively, I thought we battled all night long,” he said. “I thought our guys up front played really tough. I don’t know how (Owen Thomas) got healthy, but he got healthy and had a heck of a game. Danny Drop didn’t practice all week, and he had a heck of a game. Our defensive line – we were a little undersized, but they did a great job shooting the gaps, getting some penetration.” The Knights lost linebacker Nick Vasger to an injury in the third quarter. “Everybody knows how important he is to our team,” Beck said. “Him not being in there in that fourth quarter really affected us defensively. I had to drag Nick off the field. He didn’t want to come off the field, but I just knew he couldn’t play anymore.”...Hawk quarterback Marquez McCray, a Lansdale resident, threw for 146 yards.

North Penn              0-7-10-8   25
St. Joe’s Prep        7-7-0-21   35
SJP – D’Andre Swith 29 run (Anthony Tigano kick)
NP – Ricky Johns 14 pass from Reece Udinski (Kelly Mcnamara kick)
SJP – Terrance Greene 81 kickoff return (Anthony Tigano kick)
NP – Justis Henley 30 pass from Reece Udinski (Kelly Mcnamara kick)
NP – Kelly McNamara 28 field goal
SJP – D’Andre Swift 27 run (Anthony Tigano kick)
SJP – D’Andre Swift 12 run (Anthony Tigano kick)
NP – Nick Dillon 37 pass from Reece Udinski (Johns pass from Udinski)
SJP – D’Andre Swift 1 run (Anthony Tigano kick)