Franklin Regional looks to stay on top, clinch conference title

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Wednesday, October 12, 2022 | 5:12 PM


What a difference two weeks have made in the high school football landscape across Westmoreland County.

Hempfield was the talk of the town after its historic run to open the season.

The Spartans were 5-0 for the first time in 50 years after defeating reigning WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champion Penn-Trafford and headed toward a first-place showdown with Gateway.

Then — poof — the Hempfield came crashing back to earth. Starting quarterback Jake Phillips was injured, and a red-hot Gateway squad put an abrupt stop to the Spartans’ train. Gateway pounded Hempfield, 53-7, and then Seneca Valley followed with a 42-12 nonconference victory, leaving the Spartans at 5-2.

While Hempfield was stealing the headlines, Franklin Regional (4-2, 3-0) was quietly taking over the top spot in the Class 5A Big East Conference.

Now the talk of the county is Franklin Regional, which can clinch the top spot in the conference with a win against Hempfield when it hosts to the Spartans at 7 p.m. Friday. The Panthers got opponents’ attention with their shocking win against Gateway in Week 3.

“I consider this a playoff game,” Franklin Regional coach Lance Getsy said. “The players know what’s at stake. They know every game is big.

“We just have to continue to improve and shore things up. Our kids are battled tested. They are playing with confidence, especially after the Gateway game and how they rallied to defeat Plum.”

Franklin Regional is coming of a 35-0 win against Norwin. The Panthers did it on big plays.

Junior wide receiver Ayden Hudock scored three touchdowns, two on passes of 44 and 55 yards from senior Roman Sarnic. The other was a 26-yard interception return. Senior running back Zach Bewszka rushed for 166 yards and scored on runs of 23 and 68 yards.

“Their big-play potential is a concern,” Hempfield coach Mike Brown said. “We’ve been giving up too many big plays the last couple of weeks. Losing Jake wasn’t our biggest issue the past two weeks. Keiran (Lippman) has played well and will continue to play well in the future.

“We haven’t tackled well or been physical enough like we were at the beginning of the season. We have to get back to being physical.”

Still, the Spartans offense hasn’t been the same after Phillips was injured in the first half against Gateway. While Lippman, a junior, has filled in well, he’s not as experienced as Phillips.

Brown said he’s not sure when Phillips and starting center Logan Eisaman, who also missed the Seneca Valley game, will return.

“Right now they are day-to-day,” Brown said. “We’re preparing like we won’t have them. One thing that we did do against Seneca Valley was get back to running the ball.”

Senior Gino Caesar rushed for 146 yards and a touchdown in a loss to Seneca Valley. He has rushed for 636 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

Phillips has completed 69 of 102 passes for 1,171 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 263 yards. Ian Tuffs is the top receiver with 22 catches for 441 yards and two touchdowns, while Daniel Katonka has 20 catches for 230 yards and five touchdowns.

“I didn’t do a good job against Seneca Valley,” Brown said. “I put our players in some difficult positions. We gave them the football in our territory too many times.”

If the Panthers were a hockey team, their record would be 4-0-2. Their only losses were in double overtime to Latrobe and Shaler.

They’ve had a couple of games where they started slowly and came back strong in the second half.

After getting a quick 14-0 lead on Norwin, the Panthers used two quick scores to begin the second half to put the game away.

The defense, led by junior middle linebacker Owen Sinclair, sophomore outside linebacker Austin Kerns, sophomore tackle Andrew Devola and Hudock, has played well.

Other unsung heroes on offense for the Panthers include junior tight end Gunnar Perez, tackle Devola, center Sinclair, senior tight end Nate Chiarzio and senior guard Nick Petrucci.

“Each week I see improvement,” Getsy said. “I’m sure Hempfield will give us its best effort. They’ll especially be tough if they get Phillips back. He makes a difference in their offense.”

Brown said beating Penn-Trafford was big for the program and the community, but the Spartans didn’t respond well after falling behind Gateway.

This is only the fifth meeting between the teams. Hempfield won a 30-28 thriller last season.

This game is probably the biggest of the series because of the WPIAL playoff ramifications.

Series history

Tied 2-2

1991: Hempfield, 28-6

1998: Franklin Regional, 23-7

1999: Franklin Regional, 22-6

2021: Hempfield, 30-28

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 pschofield@triblive.com.

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