Franklin Regional football on a mission to Heinz Field
Franklin Regional finished 2011 one win away from Heinz Field. Can this be the year they take the next step?
This year's Panthers are loaded and highly touted — they enter the season ranked No. 2 in Class AAA by the Tribune-Review — and entering the season, their No. 1 goal is to reach the WPIAL final and beyond.
The team's path to get there is more challenging, as Franklin Regional returns to the Greater Allegheny Conference, but with a cast led by career 3,299-yard rusher Dane Brown, the ceiling is high for this FR squad.
“There's been intense competition every day in practice. Something we've done a lot this year is go best on best, on offense and defense, to give us the best look we can in preparation for our games,” said Brown, who finished his junior season 40 rushing yards short of 2,000.
Brown understands that his breakout junior season will make him the focus of opposing defenses this season, but he said, he doesn't think that will affect how he or his teammates get themselves ready.
“We're always going to prepare for games the same way, and I will, as well,” Brown said. “We treat every game the same, regardless of the team we're facing or what point of the year it is.”
Brown has plenty of help on the offensive side of the ball, beginning with returning senior starter Nico Lodovico at quarterback. Lodovico is a good runner from the quarterback position, but he also completed 59 percent of his passes last season to throw for 973 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The Panthers also have two strong bookends at the offensive tackle slots in seniors Sean Miller and Joe McGuire, and the line will get even stronger if senior center Luke Fleck is able to return from an injury that has held him out of the preseason.
But as good as the Panthers' offense was last year, the defense was just as potent. Franklin Regional held 9 of 12 opponents under 10 points last year, and only one broke the 14-point barrier.
Five starters are back for FR on the defensive side of the ball, and all of them play in the defense front. Defensive linemen Miller and junior Adam Mihoci, and senior linebackers Carter Henderson, Nick Vento and Dom Matarazzo all return and should make this year's edition of the defense just as fierce.
“We've got an all new secondary, but those guys are all stepping up pretty well,” Henderson said. “I think our defense will be as good, if not better, than last year's defense.”
“We really pride ourselves on not giving up a lot of points,” Vento said. “We had a lot of shutouts last year, and we'd like to keep that going because Franklin Regional has been known for its defense.”
Though he agrees his defense will be strong again, Panthers head coach Greg Botta isn't about to dismiss the losses his team had to graduation on both sides of the ball.
“What people don't understand is that I lost six guys on the offensive side and six guys on the defensive side, and of that group, all but one is playing college football somewhere,” Botta said.
“Those were top-caliber guys, and I have to replace them with guys that still need to prove themselves. There's still a lot of question marks out there.”
Some of those defensive replacements include a pair of juniors, Colin Jonov and Charan Singh, who will play the cornerback positions, while sophomore linebacker Brett Zanotto will further boost FR's run stopping.
Franklin Regional got its first big test in the preseason during a scrimmage against WPIAL Quad-A finalist Upper St. Clair, and the Panthers acquitted themselves well against the top-flight competition.
“We did well against (Upper St. Clair). We know we can hang with anyone because our defense and our offense can hold its own against any good Quad-A school,” Vento said.
The team will only be tested more once the regular season begins at 7 p.m. Friday, at home against No. 6 Mars. That game will be the first of six against playoff teams from last year, a far cry from the schedule Franklin Regional played last year, which left the team largely untested entering the playoffs.
“I'm excited about the chance to play tougher teams,” Henderson said. “Last year, the teams we played didn't really make us ready for the playoffs. This year, our first six are pretty tough games, so that should get us ready.”
Perhaps the highlight of the schedule is a televised Thursday night rematch of last year's WPIAL semifinal against Knoch on Oct. 4. Knoch eliminated the Panthers from the playoffs, 9-7, on a last-second field goal. But even with a big game like that on the schedule at midseason, Franklin Regional's players are focusing on every game equally to put themselves in the best position to advance far into the postseason.
“We had a tough loss to Knoch that really hurt us, and we're still sour about that,” Henderson said. “But we're going to use that as motivation to go further this year.”
“It's about going one step farther, and we believe we can do it with this squad.” Brown said. “We have a group of players that know what that defeat felt like, and we want to get past it.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.