Franklin Regional toppled by Thomas Jefferson in quarterfinal
Franklin Regional bowed out of the WPIAL football playoffs but not before it gave the No. 1 seed a major scare.
The Panthers led at halftime, but a series of big pass plays allowed top-seeded Thomas Jefferson to rally and hold off Franklin Regional, 24-21, in the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals at Elizabeth Forward High School on Friday.
The loss ends the season on a disappoining note for the Panthers (8-3), who had hoped to match or exceed last year's run to the semifinals. At the end of a twist-filled playoff game that came down to the final minute, however, Franklin Regional's players had every reason to be proud of their effort.
“We played our best, and we fought back,” senior linebacker Carter Henderson said. “There was nothing else we could have done tonight. We fought as hard as we could.”
“Our kids fought, and I told them that this is all a life lesson,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. “You don't always get what you want. We worked hard for it but came up short. Hopefully, they take this experience and become better people because of it.”
Quarterback Joe Carroll posted huge numbers for the Jaguars (11-0) by completing 16 of 28 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions after throwing only three in nine regular-season games. His top target, Jake Mascaro, finished with 203 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions.
Thomas Jefferson advances to face No. 4 West Allegheny in the semifinals Friday at Bethel Park High School.
“What can you say? That quarterback had it in him,” Henderson said. “He found the open holes, and he hit them.”
Franklin Regional's 7-3 halftime lead disappeared quickly in the third quarter, as Carroll connected on two touchdown passes to Dalton Dietrich to end the TJ's two drives of the half.
Dane Brown cut into the lead with a 7-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter, but on TJ's next play, Carroll hit Mascaro for an 85-yard catch-and-run to extend the lead to 24-14.
“We knew they were skilled, and we knew they could bust one at any time,” Botta said. “That one at the end, that skinny post, was a backbreaker.”
Brown scored from 20 yards away with 2:07 left in the game, and the Panthers' defense forced the Jaguars to punt the ball away with 1:10 remaining. Nico Lodovico hit Colin Jonov for a 10-yard completion to get the drive rolling, but an intentional grounding call on the next set of down put Franklin Regional in too deep of a hole to recover.
The Jaguars were forced to rely on their aerial attack by the run defense of Franklin Regional, which held Thomas Jefferson to just 22 yards rushing. Dom Matarazzo chipped in defensively with two of the interceptions of Carroll and a fumble recovery, while Jonov had the other interception in the end zone to keep the Panthers within striking distance.
Jonov played a starring role throughout the game, his first since September because of injury. He finished with 109 yards receiving on three catches, including a 50-yard touchdown that gave FR its halftime lead.
“I can't say enough about Colin Jonov,” Botta said. “He had two cracked vertebrae and a slipped disc. He had to get two orthopedic doctors to release him (to play), but he's a playmaker. That was obvious today.”
For FR, Lodovico finished with 152 yards on 9 of 22 passing with a touchdown and an interception. Brown finished with 65 yards rushing on 16 carries to bring the Cornell-bound senior's final career totals to a school-record 4,157 yards rushing and 69 total touchdowns, all while fumbling just five times in his three years as a starter.
While this year's season for Franklin Regional might appear to be a step back from last year, when the team's only loss was its WPIAL semifinal defeat, a closer look at how the season played out indicates otherwise.
The Panthers moved from the Keystone Conference to the more difficult Greater Allegheny conference and still managed to finish in a tie for second place. All three of the Panthers' losses came against ranked teams, and the three came by a combined 10 points.
Most importantly this season, Franklin Regional overcame plenty of adversity, which included a season-opening loss and injuries to key players such as Brown, Jonov, center Luke Fleck and linebacker/running back Brett Zanotto, to name just a few.
“Our coach always talks about perseverance, and I think that's what our team did this year,” Henderson said. “We came back and fought through the injuries. We always played with a chip on our shoulder, and we played like we had something to lose.”
Botta said the personality of this year's team comes directly from its seniors, and as they walked off the field from their final high school game, the coach had nothing but kind words for his departing players.
“Those seniors — Luke Fleck, Carter Henderson, Sean Miller, Nick Helsley, Nico Lodovico, there's so many of those guys — they come around once in a coach's lifetime,” Botta said.
“They're such a great group of kids. They took the underclassmen under their wings, and they were just great guys that I'm going to miss. I told the underclassmen that I hope they learn from these guys.”
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.