Walk into a crowded North Penn gymnasium and one can probably still hold a conversation with a friend sitting on the other side. That is how small it is.
When it comes to hanging football banners, that size seemed like a good thing. There were no championship banners to hang for a program that once was a laughingstock.
But those days are long gone. North Penn is now a perennial winner. And now the Panthers can proudly hang a championship banner.
Marquis Delgado and North Penn are Eastern Conference champions.
North Penn captured the Class AA Eastern Conference championship Friday, rallying past Tamaqua, 34-28 in overtime. It was quite a night at home in Blossburg for a team that not only became the first in program history to win a postseason title, but that also became the first to win multiple playoff games in the same year.
It capped an impressive comeback for a team that appeared headed nowhere after it lost four of five games and dropped to 4-4. Former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don't have the strength." North Penn (8-4) proved that because when all hoped for doing something great appeared gone, it stayed determined, played its best and turned this into a memorable and historic season.
"We just got more of an attitude," quarterback Jason Dehaven said after a big semifinal win over HAC-III champion Hughesville. "We got some big wins and we just started coming out with an attitude and playing really hard."
Dehaven played one of his best scholastic games in his final game, throwing for 158 yards and four touchdowns. Channeling his inner-Joe Montana, Dehaven led a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, capping it by hitting Marquis Delgado with an 11-yard touchdown pass at the the two-minute mark. Seconds later, he hit Delgado again with a 2-point conversion that forced overtime.
Once there, Sam Bohnert made what might go down as the biggest catch in North Penn history, leaping over a defender to grab an 11-yard touchdown. The defense then made a final stand and North Penn was finally a champion.
"We had some trouble earlier in the season but we worked hard and we got a lot better," Delgado said after the Hughesville win. "I'm really proud of everybody."
He has reason to be since a total team effort helped North Penn blast three straight opponents by a 148-42 margin entering the final. The Panthers mercy- ruled all three teams by early in the third quarter and then took care of a battle-tested Tamaqua team that one week earlier had edged top-seeded Catasaqua, 33-32 in double overtime.
The history was not related to winning a championship either. Skye Stiner, who scored two touchdowns, broke the single-season and career rushing records, while Dehaven became the first Panther to record consecutive 1,000-yard passing seasons. As nice as those achievements were for those two seniors, they were more focused on simply winning. That is the kind of attitude that helped North Penn carve out a special place in program history.
A championship football banner will soon hang in that small North Penn gym. And now that the barrier has been broken, more could be yet to come.
SO CLOSE: Milton was a play from capturing an improbable District 4 Class AAA championship Friday at Alumni Field, before Shamokin rallied late and won, 21-20. The Black Panthers started 0-5 before winning six straight games in what might be the greatest single-season turnaround in District 4 football history. Before ripping off those wins, Milton had lost 21 of its 22 games, so the strides it made in only six weeks were remarkable.
The Panthers twice came back against Shamokin, but the Indians went ahead to stay, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 36 seconds remaining. Milton made it an exciting final 36 seconds as Brady Chappell found Cody Shaffer for a 38-yard gain to the Shamokin 32-yard line before a sack finally ended the Panthers' dream season.
Donald English played a sensational game, running for 146 yards and two touchdowns while Domair Anderson added 98 yards and a score. Chappell topped 1,000 passing yards as well, becoming the first Panther in a decade to do so. Milton did not get the end it desired, but that does not diminish the progress it made.
"It was a great game," English said. "We have a great team and everybody gave it their all."
THE DRIVE: His team 84 yards from victory, Shamokin quarterback Tucker Yost looked his teammates in the eyes and told them this was the biggest drive of their lives. He then lived out a quarterback's boyhood dream, taking Shamokin 84 yards in 16 plays for the game-winning and championship-clinching touchdown.
It was pretty impressive work for a 14-year old freshman who displayed a maturity beyond his years.
"I wasn't even nervous. Coming in, I just treated it like another game and went with the game plan and hoped to come out with a win and we did," Yost said. "It's something. This is the best feeling I've ever had in my life. You can't describe it."
Yost completed 4 of 6 passes on the drive and made two big throws on third-and-long situations, setting up Shamokin for the winning score. He was never rattled and his passing created both of Shamokin's second-half touchdowns. On those two drives he was 7 of 10 and finished with 134 yards.
Whenever it appeared Milton was seizing control, Yost responded. Being clutch, though, is nothing new. In only his second varsity game, Yost threw the game-winning touchdown pass late in a 27-20 victory over Jersey Shore. Some ups and downs followed, but Yost is playing his best when it matters most.
"He showed his poise," Shamokin coach Dan Foor said. "Three weeks ago he would have bailed or maybe not made a smart decision. He hung in there until the very last moment and made some pretty big throws."
CHAMPIONSHIP EFFORT: Lewisburg's District 4 Class AA title reign ended Friday at the Silver Bowl, but not before it made one last impressive statement. The Green Dragons trailed 13-0 early in the first quarter against the HAC-II champions, but shutout top-seeded Mount Carmel in the second half and thought they had scored the game-tying touchdown late before losing, 19-13.
Lewisburg looked like it was an extra point from taking the lead in the final minutes when Cam Cassels hit Jared Laino with an apparent touchdown pass. Instead, holding was called and Lewisburg was forced to try a desperate pass on 4th-and-goal from the 25-yard line that Jacob Kleman knocked away. It was a bitter ending, especially for a group of seniors that led Lewisburg to 43 wins the last four years and the 2010 state semifinals.
Still, there was honor in defeat as the Dragons fought back when a lesser team would have folded under Mount Carmel's early assault. Laino played a terrific game, all-time leading rusher Merle Moscarello topped 100 yards and Cassels went over 1,000 yards for a second straight year.
Those who read my weekly columns know that I have never been a fan of District 4 and what I believe is a flawed playoff points system. This game proved it once again. There is no way two state-ranked teams should meet in the semifinals instead of the championship, but unfortunately, championships disguised as semifinals have frequently happened, specifically in 2005, 2006, 2007 and now, 2011.
With all due respect to Bloomsburg, an outstanding team that features a sure all-state quarterback in Blake Rankin, the real championship might have already been played. And if the Panthers do pull the upset, to all those Panthers and Panther fans who will blast me, all I say is you're welcome for providing that motivation.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK-Jason Dehaven, North Penn: The senior quarterback was sensational Friday, completing 12 of 19 passes for 158 yards and four touchdowns. Dehaven was in total command of the offense during the postseason, completing 21 of 29 passes for 280 yards and six touchdowns.