Surging Franklin Regional boys soccer pushes past Norwin
The newcomer to Section 1-AAA is flying high, while one of the usual powers has started slow.
First-half goals by Danny McGrath and Brent Velasquez kept Franklin Regional undefeated and sent Norwin to its second section loss, 2-0, last Thursday in Murrysville.
The Panthers (5-0-1, 4-0-0) were six points clear of the nearest teams in the section entering this week, while Norwin (2-4-0, 1-2-0) has lost three of its last four since the opening weekend of the season.
“(The players) are fitting into a plan,” first-year Panthers coach Ryan Montgomery said. “A lot of what we want to do is control the flow of the game. The players are really working hard. They're buying in to what we want to do, and we've got good chemistry right now.”
While controlling the flow is a goal for FR, the Knights came out doing that in the first 10 minutes of their game.
Norwin kept good pressure in the Panthers' half of the field and forced a pair of early saves from FR sophomore goalkeeper Chris Ralph. But one of Franklin Regional's first good surges into Knights' territory quickly led to the opening goal of the game.
The Norwin defense cleared a counter-attack attempt out of play on the left side, but FR quickly took the throw-in. From that throw, the ball was played to the feet of Panthers' midfielder Ryan Watson, who swung a high cross toward the back post, where McGrath rushed in to head home the opening goal less than 12 minutes into the game.
“That's kind of been our thing,” Montgomery said. “We know how to weather a storm, but what was nice about tonight, not only did we weather it, we responded well with that early goal.”
“It seems like we've been dealing with trying to find that first goal the whole season,” first-year Norwin coach Scott Schuchert said. “Confidence is a huge part of the game, and when we do find that spark, it's huge for the whole team. But a breakdown like that, it deflates the whole team.”
Norwin continued to push forward as play evened out between the teams, but the Knights continued to create the better chances. Tyler Livingston and Zac Lakenan put shots straight to Ralph before Lakenan struck a blast from 30 yards away that had the top left corner of the goal picked out.
Ralph was equal to the shot, however, as he just got enough of a glove on the ball to tip in over the crossbar with a leaping save to keep the score at 1-0.
“He's really learning how to become a big-time goalkeeper and make those key saves,” Montgomery said. “We're blessed to have such a good athlete and such a well-trained goalkeeper. He's really coming into his own.”
From what appeared to be a sure goal for Lakenan, the game turned completely less than a minute later.
Velasquez worked his way into the left side of the penalty box and tried to turn the corner after pushing the ball past the defense, but he was met with contact from Norwin defender Jaison Victor, and a penalty kick was given.
The FR senior converted the kick with a shot low and to the right, giving his team a 2-0 lead after a half hour.
Play became more physical in the second half as the Knights became more desparate, and the Panthers fought to fend off Norwin's urgency.
Norwin settled for a number of long-range attempts, but two of the Knights' best chances came from dangerous play calls against the Panthers. The first resulted in a free kick by Matt Henry from the left side that skipped through the goal box but was untouched by either team.
On the second, Norwin was unlucky to not get a penalty kick instead, as the high boot from the FR player appeared to make contact with the attacking player. Henry again took the ensuing indirect kick, which bounced off a pair of Panthers' defenders before finally being cleared.
“This team has been able to overcome (falling behind), but tonight we couldn't find that last pass or that finish we needed,” Schuchert said. “That's one thing we need to work on — the final ball or that final shot on goal.”
The Panthers were scheduled for two tough road games this week against the two teams immediately behind them in the standings. Franklin Regional was to face Kiski Area on Tuesday and Hempfield on Wednesday, both after this edition's deadline, for its only two games of the week.
“We have a few steps to take, but (the players) are certainly getting better and certainly staying composed,” Montgomery said.
“That will do a lot for us during this run the second time through these teams in the section.”
Norwin, meanwhile, was to host Latrobe on Tuesday, after this edition's deadline. The Knights go on the road to face Connellsville at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, and they host Penn-Trafford in a critical rivalry game at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.
“As far as the section, we're looking forward now to the challenge of almost having to win out to make the playoffs,” Schuchert said.
“It's tough because you want to play the best teams like we have, but you also need to get that confidence by winning. I hoped we had done that by beating Hempfield, but now I'm eager for the next game.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.