The rumblings swirling around the corridors of high school football fields in Southeastern Pennsylvania and heading toward Lansdale echo a strange and unfamiliar tone for this time of year. They are sounds of leaks and cracks, and muffled innuendo that if there were any time to strike Southeastern Pennsylvania powerhouse North Penn — this is the year, before the big-pawed puppies grow up.
The stranger thing is that Knights coach Dick Beck would like you, you and you over there in the corner to believe it. So would Todd Smolinsky. And Ralph Reeves, Brandon Mercer, Craig Needhammer, Dominic Taggart and Mike Culbreth.
'Go ahead and doubt, get us while you think you can,' the thinking at North Penn seems to be in late August. 'Get us now, because there won’t be much opportunity to get us later.'
The Knights lost almost everyone from a team that went 14-1 overall and reached the PIAA Class AAAA (large school) semifinals last year. North Penn handed defending state champion Liberty its only loss at the start of last season, and the Hurricanes came back to hand North Penn its only defeat at a more crucial time, in December.
Beck has built a power at North Penn, guiding the Knights to seven straight postseason appearances, reaching the state playoffs four times, winning the state championship in 2003. And he’s been in this spot before, retooling with a young lot that should experience growing pains at the outset before maturing and improving.
“I would say anyone who has us ranked high is only doing it by name only,” Beck cautioned. “There are a lot of unknowns. When you’re out there in a practice and you’re running around, everything looks good. You turn the lights on Friday nights, things change. We’re going to have to see what kids do well under those lights and what kids won’t. But I’m confident we have ability.
“I figure we’ll take our lumps early. We have some talent, definitely. We think we’ll be better at the end of the year than we will be at the beginning. I’m confident that we have some playmakers. Reeves will be a big-time player for us, and I think Taggart could be a big-time recruit for us, too. But we’ll find out fast what kind of team we’ll have.”
Beck isn’t kidding.
The Knights open with defending state champion Liberty and arguably the best player in the state, Anthony Gonzalez. Then there’s area rival Lansdale Catholic, and then finally a stacked St. Joseph’s Prep team before the Suburban One League schedule.
Smolinsky, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior, will be starting at quarterback for the first time at the varsity level, and he’ll be joined by Culbreth (Sr., LB, 6-1, 210) and Ryan Hessenius (Jr., LB/FB, 6-0, 215). The only two starters with significant varsity playing experience are Reeves, a 6-1, 215-pound sophomore tight end/linebacker wunderkind, and 6-2, 275-pound senior center J.D. Dzurko.
Speed will come from juniors Needhammer (5-7, 165, RB) and Brandon Mercer (5-6, 150, RB), who Beck says could be the fastest player to ever come through North Penn by the time he’s finished. Add to that mix 6-foot, 220-pound WR/DB Taggart, and it’s a group that could cause match-up problems for anyone.
It’s just a matter of proving it.
“That’s it,” said Smolinsky, who has scored a 2,100 out of 2,400 on the SAT and scored 34 out of 36 on the ACT and is thinking of being a pre-med major at an Ivy League school. “Everyone knows the year we had last year and everyone is expecting that since we lost a lot of players, we’re not the same team. There will probably be some growing pains in the beginning.
“This will be a little different the first couple of games. We don’t know what we can do right now, because we have to learn each other. We’re capable of being good. But it’s kind of weird, because we love our reputation. This year is different than other years because we’re going to be looked at as the underdogs. It’s definitely motivating.”
Reeves is a young veteran of Beck’s system, placing him in a unique role as one of the team’s go-to leaders. Setting a standard early, Reeves said, can help springboard the Knights to later success.
“We’re always expecting the most and the best,” Reeves said. “Our speed will have to be a factor, and we will have to feel comfortable with each other and know what each of us can do. But those first three games could tell.
“The fun part about it is that we’re just going to have to see. There is a confidence and it’s building. We know there is always somewhere else we can get better. If we keep thinking that way, there’s definitely a chance we’ll be around in November and December.”
It is, after all, North Penn. The Knights usually are.Joseph Santoliquito covers high schools for the Philadelphia Daily News and is a contributor to MaxPreps.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.