After claiming another section title, Franklin Reigonal sets sights on defending WPIAL crown

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Friday, October 11, 2019 | 5:28 PM


Losing 10 players off a WPIAL championship team a year ago, it made sense at the start of the season to think there might be a slight step back by the Franklin Regional boys soccer team.

So much for that idea.

With the playoffs looming this week, the Panthers have logged more than two calendar years without a regular-season loss, and their repeat as Section 4 champion has Franklin Regional likely to be one of the top seeds when the Class 3A bracket is revealed Wednesday.

The Panthers (14-0-1, 11-0-1) seem to be every bit up to the standard of last year’s side. Franklin Regional has conceded just three goals in 2019, the same number it allowed during all of the 2018 regular season, and its one draw also mirrors the team’s record of a season ago.

“With the results of last year, we kind of set the bar. We lost 10 seniors, but we felt we had players ready to step in and do the job,” Panthers coach Rand Hudson said. “Did I think we’d be where we are exactly? You never can tell, because you don’t know what the other teams have, and there’s always a surprise team. … But they’ve earned it, and they’ve done a good job. Expected isn’t the right word, but I think we’ve accepted the challenge.”

Hudson’s players managed to establish their roles quickly, which allowed the team to run its streak to 37 games since their last defeat in the regular season. Senior Connor Hudson and juniors Blake Cooper and Zach Lorenz, for example, settled the roles in the center of midfield themselves.

According to their coach, the staff was unsure who would play where at the start of the year. But Hudson settled into the holding midfield role, while Cooper has been “special”— his coach’s descriptor — helping to make the offense tick in a more attacking central role.

“With the pedigree of the guys stepping in, they were champing at the bit to get into the starting roles,” Rand Hudson said. “Losing two big, strong midfielders (from last year), you wondered what was going to happen, but those three have been great in midfield.”

Defensively, the Panthers play an all-junior back three of returning starter Cole Kaforey and new starters Jake Sciorilli and Luke Kimmich — the latter replacing his graduated brother Matt at the same position. That trio, plus the sound goalkeeping of junior Gianni Diacopoulos, have led the Panthers’ stellar defensive record, but the work has been shared all around.

“Our three center backs and our goalie, they’ve been great all year and rarely make a mistake,” Connor Hudson said. “But guys who are kind of left out in the defensive picture are our wingers. They’re the hardest working players on the field, going corner to corner. It’s such a tiring position, but they do a great job coming back and getting up (on attack).”

That defensive strength allows players like top-scoring sophomore striker Anthony DiFalco the freedom to do what he does best, spearheading an attack that has scored 74 goals in 15 matches. But despite the gaudy numbers, these Panthers have been tested and learned from those tests, as well.

The lone blemish on their record, a 1-1 draw with Thomas Jefferson on Sept. 10, saw the visiting Jaguars play a defensive posture and find the net from a free kick. The rematch, on Sept. 26, again began with the Jaguars playing tight at the back in a scoreless first half, but the Panthers finally solved the puzzle and raced to a 5-0 victory.

“From the beginning of the year, teams played very defensive against us. Against TJ, they played really hard defense, credit to them,” Connor Hudson said. “We’ve just gotten better throughout the season of breaking teams down and getting after teams, getting a goal or two early. Then it just becomes really hard for the other team to change from playing defensive to having to go and press us.”

The level of play is about to step up with the postseason approaching, and Franklin Regional would love nothing more than to advance farther than last year, when it lost a WPIAL final rematch in the PIAA semifinals to West Allegheny.

That disappointment to end last year has the Panthers ready to put their regular-season success on hold and get off to a fresh start.

“It hasn’t been talked about too much, but we have been saying we want to take it one step further,” Connor Hudson said. “I’d say our phrase this year has been, once the regular season is over, it’s a whole new, eight-game season — four WPIAL playoff games and four state games. We want to go undefeated in the eight-game season.”

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.

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