Bye week helps Franklin Regional regroup, heal for Gateway game

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Friday, September 27, 2019 | 7:20 PM


Much like an NFL schedule, the Franklin Regional football slate includes a bye week.

It took place for the Panthers last week and was created when Albert Gallatin dropped out of the WPIAL after last season.

“Yes, a bye week in high school football is rare,” FR coach Greg Botta said. “It is my first in 26 years. We approached it with the idea we can heal up many injured players.

“I was totally upset we could not fill this week for a number of reasons: routines, one less game for our team, especially our seniors, and one less home game. We have only three home games, something we are upset about. Plus, there’s less revenue for the school and our boosters.”

In its latest action, Franklin Regional lost a 28-7 nonconference decision Sept. 21 at Shaler. After being idle for 12 days, the Panthers will oppose Gateway on Friday in a key Class 5A Big East Conference matchup. Game time is 7 p.m.

“This week off is a blessing in disguise,” Botta said. “It is giving us time to heal and treat many of our starters. It also has given my staff more time to prep for a crucial game against Gateway, an excellent team. We’ve had the opportunity to be more detailed in our scouting reports, have more time with film and have a better understanding of what our opponent does and how we can exploit them.

“Practices are slightly different but on the same lines and time frames. Some will be shorter and paying closer attention to details.”

Gateway ended the season’s first half with a 4-1 record, and a 2-1 mark in the conference. The Gators posted the highest offensive average (39 ppg) and lowest defensive average (9.6 ppg) in 5A.

Franklin Regional stood at 2-0 in the Big East, a half-game behind Penn-Trafford (4-1, 3-0), and 3-1 overall. The Panthers averaged 29.3 points and allowed 18 ppg.

FR will be looking for some payback against Gateway. The Gators rolled past the Panthers by scores of 63-3 in the regular season 35-0 in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

The Gators have won four of the past five decisions in the rivalry.

“Gateway is a well-coached, extremely fast team with many starters back from last year,” Botta said. “They run a multiple defensive front and make no mistakes in getting off the ball. Offensively, they are explosive, meaning one of many persons can break it and take it to the house. They have a number of D-I players.”

Albert Gallatin’s departure from the WPIAL left a void on Oct. 11 on the Gators’ schedule. Gateway will play at Ohio power Massillon on that date in the first-ever meeting between the schools.

Shaler racked up 28 of the game’s final 35 points to pull off the upset against the previously unbeaten Panthers.

“We are doing well,” Botta said. “We knew going in we had young quarterbacks and wide receivers. But they have been doing well. We just have to stay more focused.

“We hit a tough opponent in Shaler. Very uncharacteristic play led to our defeat, something we can’t do (against Gateway).”

FR’s playmakers on offense include running backs Zac Gordon (507 rushing yards), Colton Johns, Brandon Zonotta and Justin Johns, who have combined for 815 yards on the ground; quarterback Trevor Brncic (335 passing yards), tight end Luke Reppemund and wide receivers Jeffrey Downs, Mario Sarnic, Jacob Brand and Caden Smith.

All are juniors except Smith, a sophomore, and seniors Justin Johns, Brand and Gordon, who leads the team in scoring with seven touchdowns.

Justin Johns, a four-year starter, is the Panthers’ defensive catalyst from his linebacker post with 42 tackles, one tackle for a loss and one interception. Johns has received a Division I offer from Air Force Academy.

“Our team has performed well up to this point,” he said. “There were a lot of questions coming into the season because of how many of our skilled players we lost from last year, but those guys have really stepped up their game and have contributed tremendously to this team. Our wide receivers have been terrific. Many questioned whether we would have the ability to throw the ball this year, but as long as we’re getting the ball out to those playmakers we’ll be OK.”

“My brother Colton has done a multitude of things for this offense, and has dedicated himself to become better each week. I’m my opinion, which may be a little bias, Colton is having a breakout season, and I believe can be a threat for the next two years.”

Justin Johns also has received interest from several D-III schools, as well as Ivy League and Patriot League teams.

“We may have had a rough game (against Shaler),” he said, “but we’ve looked over the film and have corrected our mistakes. After this bye week, we should be healthy and prepared for the rest of the regular season and postseason.

“The goal has always been to make it to the WPIAL championship and win. We have one of the longest playoff streaks in WPIAL history, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t make it there.”

Franklin Regional has size, skill and depth in the trenches. Seniors Anthony Bonacci, a 6-foot-1, 265-pound center; C.J. Ciecierski, a 5-11, 210-pound tackle; and Josh Gabster, a 6-2, 220-pound guard, anchor the line.

“As an offensive line, we work as a unit. One person is no more important than the other,” Bonacci said. “We have been playing together for years and we feed off that bond. Myself and C.J. have a lot of varsity experience, so we lead vocally and by example.”

Bonacci, who along with Ciecierski is a third-year starter, said the team has been focused solely on Gateway for two weeks.

“We make our goals on a week-by-week basis,” he said, “so right now we are focused on Gateway. But in the long term, our goal is to win the conference and win our last game.”

Gateway is aiming for a third consecutive conference title. The Gators won 26 of 29 contests the past two seasons including the WPIAL championship game in 2017.

The Gators’ headliner is junior star Derrick Davis.

The 6-foot,180-pound running back/linebacker has been heavily recruited, receiving offers from the likes of Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Florida, LSU, Ohio State, Texas A&M, along with Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia.

Davis has accounted for 878 total offensive yards, including 774 on 52 carries (14.9 per carry) in the rushing department. He also has scored 12 times.

Gateway senior QB Bryson Venanzio has passed for 818 yards and 11 touchdowns, and another impact player is senior tight end/linebacker Tui Faumuina-Brown, who has landed college interest from Air Force, Navy, Western Michigan and Ohio, among others.

Defensively, both the Gators and Panthers employ strong linebacking corps. Integral linebackers for FR include the Johns brothers, seniors Brock O’Block and Anthony Damic and junior Patrick McMillan.

“Gateway is a spread offensive team that we’ve struggled with in the past,” Johns said. “They have a ton of athletic ability at their skilled positions and their line, as well. We must be ready mentally and physically in order to win the game.”

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