Battle-tested Franklin Regional set to face West Allegheny
The Franklin Regional football team keeps facing challenges, and the Panhers keep overcoming them.
After winning in spite of heavy losses to graduation, significant injuries and strong opponents, the Panthers (10-1) will face perhaps their most difficult obstacle yet when they play No. 1 West Allegheny in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at North Allegheny. The winner will advance to the WPIAL championship game next week at Heinz Field.
Given what he's seen so far this season, Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta doesn't expect his team to back down.
“Let me tell you something: These kids, there's something magical about them,” Botta said. “I've coached a lot of great teams, and this team here has far exceeded any expectation that I had for them. They (have) arrived now. They're not cocky; it's like a confidence (that) almost a predestined type of path has been laid down for them. They felt the sting of losing against Highlands (in Week 3). They hated it, and they don't want to feel that again.
“Whatever's happening, or whatever they're doing, they're extremely excited about (still) playing, they don't want it to end and they want a chance to play at Heinz (Field). I know the obstacle's high. It's going to be a tough one to overcome. But they have a strong belief they can do it.”
No. 4 Franklin Regional continued its march through the postseason by defeating No. 5 West Mifflin, 14-12, in the quarterfinals last week at East Allegheny High School. Star West Mifflin running back Jimmy Wheeler rushed for 235 yards and two touchdowns, but the Panthers stopped him on three key occasions: a fourth-and-goal in the first quarter, a 2-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter and a fourth-and-1 attempt with under two minutes remaining.
“We knew we had to stop Wheeler,” said senior Casey Colagrande, who forced a fumble on defense and scored when he recovered a fumble in the end zone on offense. “We knew we weren't going to completely shut him down, but we had to keep him out of the end zone and hold up his yards. We seemed to do that tonight.”
Franklin Regional also kept the ball out of Wheeler's hands for long stretches with an effective run game of their own, as both Charan Singh and Brett Zanotto rushed for more than 70 yards.
“They're absolutely great players,” Colagrande said of West Mifflin. “To go against them tonight like this just means a lot. To pull out the win is just phenomenal.”
Franklin Regional will face another stiff test against West Allegheny, the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion. The Indians (11-0) boast the No. 2 offense and No. 4 defense in Class AAA, and their last loss against a WPIAL opponent came Sept. 28, 2012, against Central Valley — a span of 19 games.
“They're No. 1 in the state for a reason,” Botta said. “They execute flawlessly. They have a number of different weapons. ... They make very few mistakes. (Coach) Bob Palko has those guys playing on all cylinders right now. There's only one or two teams that played them close, and they were excellent football teams, too. This is a team we've got to play almost perfectly against if we're going to have a chance to win this game.”
Chayse Dillon leads West Allegheny with 973 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, while Tory Delmonico has added 617 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Terrence Stephens, Whitney White and Armand Dellovade also picked up key yards and scores for the Indians.
“They definitely want to run the football, much like West Mifflin did,” Botta said. “But against West Mifflin, we knew one kid was going to get the ball 35 to 40 times. They spread it out between a lot of different guys, dong the same type of things. So we have to be sound against those things.”
West Allegheny quarterback Andrew Koester passed for 1,267 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, with just one interception.
On its own end, Botta said the Panthers must play mistake-free football on offense, defense and special teams to win Friday night.
“Things we can't do to win the game: We can't turn the ball over, we can't commit a lot of penalties and we can't be misaligned,” Botta said. “If we (avoid) those things, I think we're going to have a chance to win this football game.”