Franklin Regional not satisfied with first-round playoff exit

Friday, November 15, 2019 | 5:07 PM

There wasn’t another team in the WPIAL that played a schedule like Franklin Regional did this season.

Panthers coach Greg Botta dubbed his team “the traveling football show,” because they were road warriors for most of the year. The Panthers played only three games at home due to losing a game with Albert Gallatin, which left the WPIAL to play an independent schedule.

Through all the travel, they were able to secure a 16th consecutive playoff berth, but after a first-round exit, Botta is hopeful a large crop of returning skill players will want more next year.

Franklin Regional finished 4-5 overall and fell 35-7 at Moon in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.

“Making the playoffs is all well and good, but you don’t want to be eliminated in the first round,” said Botta, who completed his 26th year at the helm of the Panthers. “I take a lot of blame for that. We had a pretty good football team. I thought we could go a little further than what we did. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make down the stretch.”

Franklin Regional played five of its first six games on the road. Add in a bye week for the vacated Albert Gallatin game and it was five weeks between home games.

During that stretch, Franklin Regional earned Big East Conference wins over Plum, Latrobe and Connellsville and a nonconference win at West Mifflin. Franklin Regional’s three conference losses came to Penn-Trafford, McKeesport and Gateway, which were three of the final four teams left in Class 5A.

“That says a lot about our conference,” Botta said. “I remember (McKeesport coach) Matt Miller saying to me one time that they could be out of it after losing to us the first week. That’s how good our conference is.”

Franklin Regional ran into a Moon team having its best season in 13 years in the playoffs and saw its own season come to an end.

“We upset Bethel Park last year and went down to Moon with the intention of playing tough and we did that for the first half, but then things fell apart,” Botta said. “The game of football is about playmakers and we’re bringing a lot of them back, so hopefully that’ll make a difference for the games we lost this year.”

Those returning playmakers include quarterback Trevor Brncic, who completed over 50% of his passes in his first year as the starter. He threw for 978 yards and seven touchdowns. The Panthers also return their top four receivers: Jerraine Turner, Jeffrey Downs, Mario Sarnic and Brandon Zannotta. All will be seniors next year.

The Panthers will lose a mainstay on defense in linebacker Justin Johns, who was a four-year starter. Johns had 95 tackles this season and has an offer from Air Force. Botta is hopeful that some other schools check in on Johns in the coming weeks, because he feels he can play at the Division I level.

“Justin was trying to break the career tackles record for the school. It was definitely in his sights, but he just fell short,” Botta said. “Another game would have helped. He’s a great kid who’s been a starter for four years. He’s one of those guys that you hate to lose.”

Zac Gordon, who rushed for a team-high 872 yards, will graduate along with many of the guys that blocked for him. Anthony Bonacci, Brock O’Block, Max Kodat, and CJ Ciecierski are all senior lineman. Botta believes that all of aforementioned players will move on to play in college.

Along with having many of the skill position players returning, Franklin Regional has seven returning starters on defense.

That sparks optimism for next year. The key for Botta will be how the team reacts after the disappointment of losing in the first round.

“Whether it’s Trevor or Zannotta or Turner or Downs … there’s a number of players that we have that have the capability to take over a game, but they have to get in the weight room now,” Botta said. “I told them that after the season, they didn’t commit the way they should have this year. They didn’t do the extra things. Hopefully they saw the light. There were a lot of tears after the Moon game and hopefully they’ll use that to continue to get better.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer


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