Sports Columnist

John Knebels

PHILADELPHIA – It might be time to buy a new trophy case.

For the 22nd time, North Catholic High School captured the Catholic League boys soccer championship last week by edging La Salle, 1-0.

The win also sent the Falcons (16-1-3 overall) into the District 12 championship against George Washington a couple days later, and North Catholic easily disposed of their Public League foe to qualify for the state tournament.

No offense intended toward the PIAA tourney, but the Falcons still remain in Catholic League celebration mode following their first league title since 2002.

“This is unreal,” said North midfielder Carl Essenthier. “When I think of how hard we all worked for his, it’s an incredible feeling knowing that everything paid off. Everyone wanted this so bad.”

Despite out-shooting the Explorers by 11-2, the Falcons nearly left the field in shock, much the way favored St. Joseph’s Prep and Father Judge had done in the quarterfinal and semifinal playoff rounds with La Salle, respectively.

Thought to be in a rebuilding stage, the Explorers stunned both the Prep and Judge in shutout fashion, and although their overall effort was noteworthy, it was the stellar play of goalie Steve Kelly that kept the Explorers alive through the title match.

Actually, Kelly’s performance was more than just stellar. It was sensational.

Before allowing a goal to slip past his fingers in the 81st minute against North Catholic, Kelly had faced 35 shots in the playoffs and stopped every one of them, many in the “you have to be kidding” variety.

The only difference between the tears shed by North Catholic and those expelled by players from the Prep and Judge was the emotion behind it – joy for the Falcons, deep disappointment for the Hawks and Crusaders.

“North controlled most of the play,” said Kelly, a junior who was a backup goalie on La Salle’s 2006 championship team. “I should have had it. I should have made the save.”

The goal, scored by Essenthier off a direct kick from about 18 yards out, set off a spontaneous celebration by the Falcons and their sea of fans.

Elation or relief?

“Both,” said Essenthier. “The longer the game goes, the harder it is to score. We wanted to win it in regulation. Anything can happen in overtime.”

Despite strapping his team on his broad shoulders and taking them to the brink of their third title in four years, Kelly was despondent.

“Coming that close makes it even harder to lose,” he said. “I know we did a nice job as a team and went further than people expected us to go. The good thing is that a lot of us will be coming back, and we will be hungry to get the championship back to La Salle.”

North Catholic coach Jerry Brindisi was proud of his players.

“When you think about how many strong programs there are in the Catholic League, it’s a great achievement any time you win a Catholic League championship,” he said. “Every game is tough, no matter who you play, and especially in the playoffs.”

John Knebels can be reached at