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La Salle slips by North Penn in a wild seesaw showdown

The lead changed seven times in the 38-35 victory by the Explorers.

La Salle quarterback Matt Magarity (17) leads the postgame cheers as the Explorers celebrate a return to the state championship game Saturday. Magarity threw two touchdown passes in the wild semifinal, as neither team backed down the whole way.
La Salle quarterback Matt Magarity (17) leads the postgame cheers as the Explorers celebrate a return to the state championship game Saturday. Magarity threw two touchdown passes in the wild semifinal, as neither team backed down the whole way.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

The countless fans, players, and coaches walking around with wide-eyed, speechless expressions after the game couldn't have told the story any better.

La Salle's 38-35 win over North Penn in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals will be remembered by those in the packed house at Plymouth Whitemarsh Saturday afternoon for a long time to come.

The only problem most seemed to have was finding a way to describe what they saw.

"The best high school football game I've ever seen," was a popular expression.

There were plenty of reasons. The game featured seven lead changes, seven fourth-down conversions - including one on a fake punt by North Penn on fourth and 8 - 775 yards of total offense, and a game-clinching interception by lineman Ryan Geiger with 1 minute, 14 seconds to play.

"It was a classic. That's as good as it gets," said La Salle coach Drew Gordon, whose team will play North Allegheny Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium for the state title. "It was like two good boxers in the ring going punch for punch."

There were several plays in the fourth quarter that could have served as the knockout blow.

The first was the fake punt by North Penn (13-2).

On fourth and 8 from the La Salle 48 with 7:59 on the clock, the Knights lined up in punt formation but short-snapped the ball to Craig Needhammer. Needhammer took off and gained just enough for the first down.

"We'd practiced that all year, but that's the first time we called it," said North Penn coach Dick Beck. "It just came down to Needhammer wanting the first down. That was a tough run."

Eight plays later, Dominic Taggart escaped on the right edge for a 19-yard touchdown, putting the Knights up by 35-31.

The score capped a 15-play drive that ate up 6:18 of the fourth quarter.

At that point, the Knights had all the momentum and just 4:43 to kill before going home with a victory.

But six plays later, the Explorers (13-1) retook the lead for good on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Matt Magarity to Sean Coleman.

The play put a cherry on top of a stellar game for Magarity.

The junior finished 10 of 19 passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Magarity's first touchdown was a 3-yard strike, with 9:17 left in second quarter, to Tim Wade. The play tied the score at 14.

"Matt did a great job," Gordon said. "That's the best he's played since the first North Penn game [a 27-14 La Salle win on Sept. 3]. It couldn't have come at a better time."

Magarity's performance was trumped only by La Salle running back Jamal Abdur-Rahman.

The senior was quiet in the first half but carried the Explorers for much of the second half. He finished the game with 21 carries for 142 yards and three touchdowns.

"We've been a second-half team all year," Abdur-Rahman said. "That was our mind-set all year. We knew we just had to keep coming, to keep pushing, and we would win the game."

Countering Magarity and Abdur-Rahman were Knights quarterback Corey Ernst - who completed 9 of 18 passes for 207 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions - and Taggart - who ran 28 times for 138 yards and four touchdowns.

Both consistently made big plays to keep their team alive.

On North Penn's final drive of the game, Ernst converted a fourth and 9 by hitting Gerald Wendowski for a 30-yard completion.

But on the very next play, La Salle's Joe Naji got his fingertips on an attempted screen pass and the ball fell into the arms of Geiger, effectively ending the game.

The interception "felt pretty great because I knew the game was over at that point," said Geiger, his face bloodied in about four different places. "But I had a great time out there today, and I'm ready for Hershey next week."

Turnovers proved to be the difference between the teams. North Penn committed three turnovers; La Salle did not commit any, which helped it overcome a 21-17, halftime deficit.

"We're disappointed. Both teams made a lot of great plays," Beck said. "They were a fingertip better than us today."

La Salle 7 10 14 7 - 38

North Penn 14 7 7 7 - 35

NP: Taggart 1 run (Mandes kick)

LS: Abdur-Rahman 3 run (Winslow kick)

NP: Reeves 55 pass from Ernst (Mandes kick)

LS: Wade 3 pass from Magarity (Winslow kick)

LS: FG Winslow 24

NP: Taggart 1 run (Mandes kick)

LS: Abdur-Rahman 8 run (Winslow kick)

NP: Taggart 7 run (Mandes kick)

LS: Abdur-Rahman 4 run (Winslow kick)

NP: Taggart 19 run (Mandes kick)

LS: Coleman 25 pass from Magarity (Winslow kick)