PIAA “AAAA” state championship preview – North Penn (13-2)
District 1 used to be a frequent participant in PIAA championship games, making a total of 12 appearances from 1990 to 2004. But since 2004, D1 hasn’t sent a team on to compete for a state title in the state’s largest classification. District 11 took a stranglehold on PIAA final appearances before a two-year run by La Salle College High School of the Philadelphia Catholic League.
Now, District 1 is back. And, surprise surprise, the title game rep hails from the Suburban One League.
North Penn (13-2) will mark the Suburban One League’s 10th PIAA finals appearance when the Knights battle with Mid-Penn Conference rep Central Dauphin (14-1) Saturday night in the PIAA AAAA championship game from Hersheypark Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.
The North Penn-Central Dauphin matchup is probably the one few saw coming. La Salle, for all intents and purposes, had North Penn’s number over the last three meetings, dropping 109 points in three consecutive victories over the Knights. And, since shifting to the western half of the PIAA AAAA bracket in 2004, District 3 reps had been 0-for-6 in semifinal games.
Don’t look for either the Rams or Knights among the national rankings. Or, for that matter, even the USA-Today’s regional rankings, which have both Archbishop Wood and Bishop McDevitt, a pair of Class AAA programs, among the top-10 in the east.
Prior to 2011, District 1’s last two big school teams to earn berths in the PIAA finals weren’t all that memorable. Neshaminy is still probably haunted by the 2004 Pittsburgh Central Catholic team which demolished the traditional District 1 power, 49-14, scoring touchdowns on each of its seven first half possessions. Then, in 2007, Garnet Valley, a AAA school from Delaware County, fell to a powerful Thomas Jefferson team, 28-3. District 1’s only state championship since Neshaminy’s 2001 triumph over highly touted Woodland Hills belonged to then-AA and Pioneer Athletic Conference rep Lansdale Catholic.
In the SOL’s nine previous PIAA finals appearances, its representatives have posted a 6-3 overall record. Central Bucks West won four titles and lost two others; North Penn won its only appearance; and Neshaminy split its two appearances in a four-year span. In all, District 1 is 10-8 in PIAA final appearances.
Should North Penn win Saturday night, it would move to 2-0 all-time in PIAA championship games, joining a list of schools which includes Bethlehem Catholic, North Allegheny, Allentown Central Catholic, South Park, McKeesport Area, Thomas Jefferson and Steelton-Highspire as programs with unblemished records in two or more PIAA title games. Both ACC and TJ are 3-0.
The Knights have been on a pretty dominant run over the last decade. Including the 2011 season, North Penn has won 128 games against 23 losses (.847), claimed six District 1 championships and the 2003 PIAA title, finishing No. 8 in the nation that season. Head coach Dick Beck has a record of 119-20, a position he’s held since the 2002 season.
This edition of the Knights doesn’t boast some four- or five-star recruit or umpteen million Division-1 collegiate football prospects. In a way, North Penn is very much like that of its opponent – hard-nosed and physical on both lines and defensively, with respectable ground attacks and an effective passing attack.
Corey Ernst, a two-year varsity starter at quarterback, operates the controls of North Penn’s offense which is averaging 383.7 yards (238 rush, 145.7 pass) and 32.6 points per game. Ernst has had a solid senior season, connecting on 146-of-232 passes (62.9 percent) for 2,069 yards and 25 touchdowns against five interceptions. He’s proven one of the most accurate passers in school history, completing 281-of-441 (63.7 percent) for 4,162 yards and 47 touchdowns. He owns North Penn records for career passing yardage, single-season passing yardage, career completion percentage, career touchdown passes and single-season touchdown passes.
North Penn has a steady bevy of running backs it can use at its disposal. Kyle Mayfield has a team-leading 1,352 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns on 195 carries, but he has been dinged up in recent weeks. James Fielder, who ran for 755 yards and seven scores, has also been hurt at times, allowing leading receiver Dan Gevirtz (56 rec., 918 yards, 9 TD; 602 rush yards, 6 TD) to make an impact on the ground game. But if high school football had a fantasy football league, it would Ralph Reeves who you want in your corner. The Knights’ “ace-in-the-hole”, Reeves plays fullback and tight end, and he’s scored 16 rushing touchdowns on only 39 carries and hauled in another 14 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns. Reeves also plays linebacker on defense.
Eddie Posavec (19 rec., 253 yards, 2 TD) and Shayne Watson (18 rec., 226 yards, 4 TD) are also reliable targets in the Knights’ aerial assault.
The Knights’ skill postion players have enjoyed the protection of a beefy and physical offensive line fronted by John Garland (6’4, 325), T.J. Smink (6’2, 285), Josh Cook (6’0, 235), Derek Brandt (6’0, 235) and George Shipp (6’2, 230), an average of 262 pounds per man.
Defensively, North Penn has steadied itself following two season-opening thumpings by La Salle and St. Joseph’s Prep. In its 13 victories, North Penn has allowed a miniscule 115 points, or 8.8 per game. The Knights’ first-string and reserve units have held 12 of those 13 opponents to 14 points or less and posted three shutouts along the way. The Knights have gotten key contributions on the defensive side of the ball from players like Cook, Shipp, Jeff Gozur, Reeves, Watson, Danny Wynne and Gevirtz, among others.
Does North Penn have the necessary ingredients to bring District 1 its 11th PIAA football championship? Or will Central Dauphin claim District 3’s second PIAA AAAA title?
Find out Saturday night.
EasternPAFootball.com’s Armand “The Godfather” Vanore has contributed some of the information appearing in the story.
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