Franklin Regional junior varsity hockey goes on amazing underdog run

Saturday, May 4, 2024 | 11:01 AM

The Franklin Regional junior varsity hockey team struggled during the regular season in the PIHL’s Tier 1.

The Panthers, who were the Tier 2 champions in 2022-23, were moved up because of their success.

“We were put in with the big boys,” Franklin Regional coach Dave Soltesz said. “We were playing the best of the best.

“We focused on improving every game, and we didn’t get our first win until December. We finished dead last with a 2-11-3 record. All season, we were everyone’s punching bag.”

The team also was dealing with an ill coach. Soltesz was diagnosed with tongue cancer, which forced the coach to have two surgeries. Soltesz missed a month and returned in December.

“I had to take a break,” Soltesz said. “I’m cancer free.

“I’ve been coaching 15-16 years, and I’ve coached a team to three championships. This one was the most fun and rewarding. It was amazing.”

The Panthers were seeded No. 8 and faced a difficult challenge.

But no challenge was too big for the Panthers.

Franklin Regional opened the playoffs by defeating No. 1 seed Pine-Richland, 4-1. After allowing an early goal 1:08 into the game, the Panthers buckled down defensively and goaltender Payson Neff stopped 27 of 28 shots.

“When we were in the locker room before the Pine-Richland game, we told them they have nothing to lose,” Soltesz said. “We wanted them to play defense first and take the offense when we get it.

“After they scored early and we regrouped, we were solid defensively and our goalie, he was lights out. We shut teams down defensively.”

Cole Bradburn tied the score 1-1 and Ryan Crouse scored the first of his three goals to give the Panthers the lead for good, 2-1. Crouse scored two more goals in the third period.

“We realized we had to play defense first,” Soltesz said. “The games were getting close at the end of the season. After allowing that early goal, we didn’t allow another until the third period in the championship game.”

Liam Murphy scored a goal in overtime to lead the Panthers to a 1-0 victory against North Allegheny in the semifinals. Jacob Knizner added an assist.

Neff stopped all 32 shots to record the shutout.

Then they defeated Mt. Lebanon in the championship game, 2-1. They got goals from Ryland Kase and Crouse in the second period and then held on for the win.

Neff stopped 29 of 30 shots while Liam Murphy and Michael Pint added assists.

“Payson was amazing,” Soltesz said. “And our defense was stout.

“Our game plan was to play sound defense and take advantage of our opponent’s mistakes.”

Paul Schofield is a TribLive reporter covering high school and college sports and local golf. He joined the Trib in 1995 after spending 15 years at the Daily Courier in Connellsville, where he served as sports editor for 14 years. He can be reached at

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