Upper St. Clair advances after defensive struggle with Franklin Regional
In a defensive struggle that mirrored a heavyweight boxing match, it was Upper St. Clair that landed enough blows to walk away victorious.
The No. 4 Panthers held on for a 6-3 win over No. 5 Franklin Regional in the opening round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs Friday to extend their season at least one more game.
"I knew it was going to be a competitive game," Upper St. Clair coach Jim Render said. "We have been in a lot of tough games, and this was another one."
Upper St. Clair (8-3) advances to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since 2013. The Panthers will play No. 1 Penn-Trafford with a time and site to be determined.
Upper St. Clair took the opening drive 66 yards into the Franklin Regional red zone, but the Panthers fumbled the ball on a carry up the middle, and Nate Leopold recovered for Franklin Regional inside the 10-yard line.
Franklin Regional's defense came up big again on the next Upper St. Clair drive, forcing a turnover on downs on its own 24-yard line.
"That is how our defense has been all year," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "To hold (Upper St. Clair) to six points, I don't think many teams have done that all year."
Franklin Regional's offense couldn't turn the defensive success into points. The Panthers had one first down and 21 yards in the first quarter.
Upper St. Clair took the lead midway through the second quarter. On a fourth-and-4, Jack Hansberry hit Chris Pantellis on a 16-yard catch and run to take a 6-0 lead. Leopold blocked the ensuing extra-point attempt.
After halftime, the Franklin Regional offense found momentum. On their most successful drive, the Panthers went 60 yards to the Upper St. Clair 20-yard line. But the Panthers drive stalled, and they settled for a 34-yard field goal by Domenick DiFalco.
Franklin Regional had an opportunity early in the fourth quarter when it started a drive on the USC 43. The Panthers drove inside the 5, but DiFalco's field goal was wide.
"I asked (Render) if he thought the field goal was good, and he said 'yeah,' " Botta said. "That hurts. But it is not one play that makes a game. It is a number of them."
The Franklin Regional defense made a stop on the ensuing possession, but the Upper St. Clair punt was muffed and recovered by the kicking team.
With 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining, Hansberry converted a fourth-and-1 from the Franklin Regional 39-yard line to secure the win.
It was the first meeting between the teams since 2002.
Hansberry had a big night to extend Upper St. Clair's season.
The senior led the Panthers with 140 passing yards, 116 rushing yards and a touchdown.
"He makes plays," Render said. "He is a tough competitor. We weren't planning him running the ball so much at the beginning of the season. He is a weapon and we use him running and passing."
Franklin Regional (6-4) was led by Adam Ruzinski with 119 passing yards.
Nathan Smith is a freelance writer.