Greater Allegheny Conference favorites to meet on opening night
Opening night will provide an opportunity for the Franklin Regional football team to start a new winning streak.
The Panthers, who raced to 11 consecutive victories last season before losing in the closing seconds of the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals, will attempt to do it in their return to the Greater Allegheny Conference after two seasons in the Keystone Conference.
In a break from tradition, Franklin Regional will open conference play with its first game, entertaining Mars on Friday night.
“This is the first time I've coached a team that will start the season without an exhibition game,” said Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta, whose team enters the year ranked No. 2 in the Trib Total Media Class AAA rankings.
Botta and his staff, including new defensive coordinator Frank Cortazzo, have been working overtime in an effort to educate Franklin Regional's players about Mars' wing-T offense.
“We didn't face any wing-T last year (in the Keystone),” Botta said. “The last time we faced it was in '09 against Mars.”
Franklin Regional lost that game, 14-0.
“We've spent many more hours than usual studying their offense,” Botta said. “You can fall victim to a lot of elements. It can be very deceptive, a lot of misdirection. You've got to be very disciplined, and if you're not, it'll get you.”
Mars quarterback Owen Nearhoof and running back Jason Lozzi, two key skill players anchoring the Planet's wing-T offense, return after leading the program to a seventh consecutive playoff appearance last season, when they combined for nearly 1,400 yards of offense and 15 touchdowns.
“We'll try to do what we do best. We'll control the football, take time off the clock,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “That's what the wing-T can do.”
Franklin Regional hopes to counter with a unique attack of its own. Running back Dane Brown is a threat to punish the Planets' defense after coming within 40 yards of 2,000 yards rushing last season, when he also scored 34 touchdowns and finished second in the district in scoring.
With all WPIAL conferences opening play on the first weekend, neither Botta nor Heinauer are dwelling on a game of this magnitude between opponents meeting for just the third time. Botta's Franklin Regional crew is looking for its first victory in the series.
“This is a big game,” Heinauer said. “Franklin has got to be considered the favorite in the conference, and they're certainly capable of making another run at Heinz Field. They were one game from it last year.”
Botta isn't counting on anything yet, but he might get a better idea after Friday's opener.
“Without the exhibition games, we won't know a thing about how the kids will react out of the gate,” he said. “In past years, I've seen a lot of mistakes in those early games. You've just got to be prepared. All the coaches are in the same boat.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5617.