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Franklin Regional boys soccer 'set the bar' in playoff run

| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 10:30 p.m.
Franklin Regional's Zach Guidry tries to corral a loose ball along the sideline against Hempfield.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Franklin Regional's Zach Guidry tries to corral a loose ball along the sideline against Hempfield.
Franklin Regional's Jacob Shulock (right) tries to get a loose ball from Hempfield's Will Kuhns.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Franklin Regional's Jacob Shulock (right) tries to get a loose ball from Hempfield's Will Kuhns.

When the Franklin Regional boys soccer season came to an end with a 3-2 shootout loss to Canon-McMillan in the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals Oct. 25, there surely were thoughts of what could have been.

Had the No. 3 Panthers been able to hang on to their lead just a few more minutes, they would have advanced to the semifinals for the first time in program history. Instead, the Big Macs scored with less than two minutes remaining in regulation and pulled the upset.

After that initial frustration waned, though, the Panthers had more positive memories of their record-setting season, said eighth-year coach Rand Hudson.

“It was disappointing to lose in the second round the way we did, but they'll look back on it and be proud of the whole season,” Hudson said.

Prior to the postseason defeat, Franklin Regional compiled a 10-2-0 mark in Section 4-AAAA, finishing atop the conference. In addition to besting section foes like Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Connellsville, the Panthers defeated other section winners like West Allegheny, Central Catholic and South Park. At one point, the Panthers were ranked as one of the top teams in the state.

“The regular season went about as well as it possibly could,” Hudson said. “The kids played the style that we wanted and were able to win a section title.”

The path to the section title was not an easy one, though, as Franklin Regional dealt with some adversity. Goalkeeper Jeremy Lucas, a junior, had back spasms for most of the season and often was replaced in net when the Panthers gained a sizeable lead.

Senior Thad Schott and sophomore midfield/defender Nolan Scholze endured multiple injuries. Schott, also a midfield/defender, had a broken vertebra early in the season and later suffered a strained hip flexor. Additionally, Scholze suffered a broken nose twice during the season, the second of which required surgery.

Those players factored prominently into the Panthers' postseason: Schott assisted on the winning goal in Franklin Regional's first-round victory against Mt. Lebanon, and Scholze returned to the lineup against Canon-McMillan.

“He came back, and it was a big lift for everybody,” Hudson said of the sophomore. “He wanted to play, and it was hard for him to breathe, but he's such a tough kid and provides grit to the team.

“We had injuries and things to overcome all year, and that's one thing that was really special about this team. We had depth, and we had players who would just step up and do the job.”

That depth was evident as the Panthers scored 47 goals but did not have an individual who surpassed 10. Senior Shane Popko led the way in that category, and Dom DiFalco, who serves as the kicker on the football team, also made a significant impact. DiFalco moved to forward for his senior year, and the move paid immediate dividends. He became dangerous on any kick within 50 yards of the goal, his coach said.

“He has a cannon left foot, and he loves to shoot,” Hudson noted. “He was a set-piece, free-kick specialist unlike anybody in all of the WPIAL.”

Hudson also pointed to a quintet of defenders as unheralded players who helped key the Panthers' success: seniors Jake Trapanotto and Kylen Cook and juniors Matt Kimmich, Jacob Shulock and Matt Wareham.

Despite the earlier-than-anticipated playoff exit, the Panthers established the program record for wins in a season as they finished 16-3-0. Perhaps even more importantly, the seven seniors led the way for future teams, Hudson said.

“They've advanced the cause, set the bar. The message to the next group is, ‘Hey, let's move the bar again and see what we can do.' ”

Sean Meyers is a freelance writer.

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