By Mary Jane Souder
Carter Houlihan’s final high school soccer season reads like something close to a fairy tale complete with a happy ending.
The senior standout was the centerpiece of North Penn’s magical run to a PIAA 4A state crown, scoring both of his team’s goals in the Knights’ 2-0 win over archrival Central Bucks West in the state title game.
Lost in the shuffle of the Knights’ giddy postgame celebration after their state title win at HersheyPark Stadium was Houlihan’s brief exchange with West coach Stefan Szygiel, whose team faced Houlihan and the Knights 10 times in the past four years and who also coached the senior star on the club circuit with PA Rush U10 to U14.
“Carter and I had a moment – there was a big hug at midfield between him and I, and I said, ‘Everything you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished with this program – you’ve done it all, dude, and you deserve every second of it,’” Szygiel said. “And that’s the truth. You can’t not be happy for him and that program. He’s a true competitor.
“Coaching and preparing for Carter the past four years – it’s not just about him as an individual, it’s the way he can inspire others around him. He’s capable of changing any game on a dime, he can activate a different mode of himself, and he did it to us in the state final. I’ve seen it for years, and it’s almost like he’s going to go into ‘Carter mode,’ and it just might be unstoppable. That’s always been the unique thing about him that sets him apart from other dynamic, mercurial players.”
Houlian capped a remarkable season by earning PSCA Pennsylvania Player of the Year honors as well as United Soccer Coaches (USC) East Region All-American and USC All-American recognition.
“I definitely think the individual success came with the team success,” Houlihan said. “I was just worried about team success first. If those things were meant to happen, it would fall into place after we had team success.”
No moment was too big for Houlihan, who scored 30 goals and added 15 assists his senior year.
“They do not come along like him in the high school program,” North Penn coach Paul Duddy said. “We’ve had some great players over the years, but Carter just has the resolve – ‘Okay, let’s go win the game,’ and it showed all season long.
“He has great skills, he works hard at it, and his first couple of steps with the ball are something you just don’t see every day with high school players – it’s a combination of speed and his recognition of where to go with the ball. You see that professionally and things like that – he has the knack for it. It’s just pretty incredible for an 18-year-old guy.”
Throw in the fact that Houlihan makes those around him better, and there’s no denying – the senior midfielder is the complete package.
“That’s part of being a captain and leader,” Duddy said. “Everybody would agree the best players at any level make their teammates around them even better.
“He realized as a senior it’s his team, and he has to set a good example, and he did.”
Houlihan has been playing soccer since he was a youngster, getting his first taste playing in Pugg net leagues with Montgomery Soccer. He grew up playing baseball and basketball as well, which is hardly a surprise considering both his parents were athletes. His father – Jim Houlihan - played collegiate football, and his mother, Kelly, played softball at North Penn high School.
“I don’t know how soccer was brought up in my family, but they introduced it to my sister (Riley), who’s two years older than me,” Houlihan said. “I saw her stick with it in her early ages, and I stuck with it was well.”
After playing both baseball and soccer in middle school, Houlihan was torn between the two but made the decision to focus on soccer.
“I was playing them with the same people, and it was all my best friends growing up,” Houlihan said. “It was really tough for me to make the decision to stop playing baseball and focus on soccer, but I definitely think it was worth it in the end.”
That might be an understatement. Houlihan excelled from the outset, catching the eye of his future high school coach at a young age.
“He actually attended my soccer camps way back when, and you kind of realized, ‘Oh boy, this kid is really good. Let’s see what happens,’” Duddy said. “He continued to get better year after year, season after season. He played for really good club teams, and he just kept getting better and better as the seasons and years went on.”
A trip to Italy with an elite soccer team when he was in sixth gave Houlihan the idea he had a future in the sport.
“I was kind of shocked that I made the team,” he said. “There were a lot of good people from all over the country.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Hmmm, maybe I can keep doing this and keep making it further.’”
Houlihan admits he gave brief consideration to going the academy route when he was in middle school.
“I practiced with the Philadelphia Union Academy,” he said. “Nothing against the academy, I know it’s the right choice for a lot of people, but I didn’t fit into it.
“A lot of my friends were playing high school at the time, so it just wasn’t the fit for me to go the academy.”
Houlihan competed on the club circuit with PA Rush for four years and the Future Players Academy for two before landing with a Lehigh Valley squad that captured the prestigious McGuire Cup for winning the 2019 United States Youth Soccer U19 National Championship last summer.
While Houlihan’s high school career had a storybook ending, it had its disappointments as well. Last year, a Knight squad that was seeded third in the District One 4A Tournament fell to CB West in the quarterfinals in penalty kicks and was sent home for the season in its playback game. That came on the heels of a second round district exit a year earlier for the Knights – also the third seed - at the hands of Council Rock North.
“It definitely left a bad taste,” Houlihan said. “It’s not like we were one of the lowest seeds in the tournament and didn’t expect anything to come out of it.
“Going into each of those seasons, we had expectations of making states and going far into states, and we came up well short. It did stink. With all my friends I would never play soccer with again - I didn’t expect it to be the last time. I thought we would make it further and further.”
Those disappointments past served as motivation.
“There were some halftime speeches and pregame talks about – ‘I want to be at practice tomorrow. What are we going to do after school if we don’t win this game?’” Houlihan said. “In previous years, North Penn boys’ soccer was characterized by early exits.
“In the beginning of the season, I talked to some of my teammates and said, ‘Guys, I think we have a good chance to go undefeated this year. I think we can win states.’ I didn’t realize how hard and how long it would take to do that. Definitely looking back on it now, I think my eyes were a little bigger than my stomach saying that the beginning of the season. It came true. We didn’t go undefeated. We had that early loss (1-0 to Central Bucks East), but I think that was a humbling loss for us.”
The Knights never lost again, winning 22 straight to close out a memorable season. Ask Houlihan what he’ll remember most, and he points to the state title game.
“It was just an incredible feeling, playing in one of the nicest stadiums I’ve ever been in with hundreds of North Penn fans and a bunch of relatives there, and the fact that it was my last game for North Penn ever,” he said. “Being able to hold that trophy at the end of the day – it’s something that’s going to stick with me forever.”
There was never a whole lot of doubt that Houlihan would continue his career at the collegiate level.
“When I was younger, I watched North Carolina play Charlotte in the national championship game, and North Carolina won (1-0),’” said Houlihan of the 2011 title game. “When I was a young kid, the dream was I wanted to play soccer at North Carolina. Once the recruiting process started, I realized that wasn’t an option.”
Countless schools were options, and Houlihan selected Lafayette, the first school that reached out to him and also the first he visited.
“They just treated me like I was already on the team when I went there,” he said. “It was a nice feeling to be wanted, and they definitely made me feel that.
“It just felt like home. It’s not too far from home where my parents can come up and watch a couple of games. If I’m ever homesick, I can go home for the weekend.”
The opportunity to get a top-notch education was also important for Houlihan, who will major in environmental science.
“A lot of people get jobs right out of high school, already have jobs lined up,” he said. “They’re stable, and that’s something that’s important to me. I want to be able to have a stable life, a stable job out of college.”
In his final go-round this winter, Houlihan is a member of North Penn’s basketball team, but it’s on the soccer pitch that the senior standout leaves his legacy.
“Our club team won the national championship back in July and now he wins a state championship in November,” Duddy said. “I would be surprised if there’s anybody who has done that back-to-back from July through November.”
Szygiel admits he will miss coaching against Houlihan.
“Four years and 10 games of absolutely beating up on each other – some bounced our way and some bounced their way,” the Bucks’ coach said. “Carter is extremely, extremely passionate, and that’s not always the most understood quality about him. He’ll really take it to another level with how passionate he is about the game and about the result and – ‘Why aren’t we giving everything we have to get this result, and if you’re not going to do it, I’m going to do it.’ That’s a quality that is really unique in players nowadays to put that much individual responsibility on themselves for the team.
“To see him accomplish all that he did and do it in his final chance at it, especially coming off ’17 and ’18 when they did get eliminated in districts, to turn around this year and go 25-1 and win everything – man, it’s remarkable. Ultimately, in his final go, he’s going to leave a legacy with that program as one of the best to ever come through.”
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