Franklin Regional players hold heads high despite loss in PIAA title game

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Saturday, March 23, 2024 | 6:24 PM


HERSHEY — Fin Hutchison was the last basketball player from Franklin Regional to leave Giant Center on Friday night.

The senior guard cradled the PIAA Class 5A runner-up trophy like a kid with his favorite toy, gently setting it down to answer questions before heading for the bus.

He glowed, even smiled, talking about his team’s fearless effort.

“We held our own. We lost on our sword and shield,” Hutchison said. “We didn’t just roll over and die.

“We came here and showed we’re the best public school in PA.”

Franklin Regional’s hopes of winning its first state championship turned into a sunken dream, but the Panthers (27-4) took solace in the fact they pushed mighty Imhotep Charter late in the title game.

They gave themselves a chance before losing 59-48 in a matchup of Panthers.

“They moved the ball well,” longtime Imhotep coach Andre Noble said. “(Cooper Rankin) and (Cam Rowell) are their guys. They played really well. We had seen them play good against guys like us, so we knew that they were a good basketball team.”

Imhotep (29-3), a Philadelphia Catholic League power, three-peated and won its 10th state title. But not before Franklin Regional’s fourth-quarter comeback cut a 15-point lead to 41-38 on a 3-pointer by Hutchison with just over 6 minutes remaining.

“We were right there,” Franklin Regional assistant coach Mike Simmons said. “I can point to a play here or a play there. We had them.”

The local Panthers finished one of their best seasons and claimed their place in program history, falling in line with the memorable 1997 team that also finished second in the WPIAL and PIAA.

An energetic group that thrived on the fast break and defended in waves showed throughout the postseason it was made for the moment.

“We’re one of the best teams to go through FR,” senior guard Rankin said. “This is what can happen when we’re all healthy and playing together.”

An out-of-nowhere run after missing the playoffs the last two years — Franklin Regional won only nine games last year — adds to the team’s lore.

“The rest of the WPIAL and state didn’t think we had this in us,” Reed said.

The Panthers lost their final 10 games last season as standouts Rowell and Rankin dealt with injuries.

A bigger and more experienced Imhotep team neither intimidated nor discouraged Franklin Regional, which came a long way after crawling off the pile of written-off teams.

“I’m so proud of the way we battled,” third-year coach Jesse Reed said. “You tell me before the game that we’d get within four with four minutes left, I’ll sign up for that any day of the week

“We’re going into the under-4 (media) timeout, and it’s a four-point game against the No. 1 team in the state, a top-30 team in the country. These dudes never cease to amaze me. It’s incredible.”

Rankin said he nearly pulled the ribbon off his second-place medal after the WPIAL loss. He will cherish his silver badge from the state loss.

“My dad lost his medal from when he played,” Rankin said. “He told me to hang on to mine. He went 28-3 as a senior and was (district) runner-up and state runner-up. We were, what, 27-4? I guess he has one more win to hold over me.”

Bret Rankin played at Punxsutawney of District 9 and also made the PIAA finals in 1992.

The Panthers will lose four starters — Rowell, Rankin, Hutchison and Colin Masten — but will bring back junior Connor Crossey, key junior reserve Drew Devola, junior Jack Spagnol and others.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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