Franklin Regional’s Thomas shines in PIAA 100 backstroke

Saturday, March 18, 2023 | 9:20 PM

LEWISBURG — With only eight-tenths of a second separating the No. 1 and No. 8 seeds in the championship final of the boys 100-yard backstroke Saturday evening at the PIAA Class 3A championships, predicting the final order of finish was a little more difficult than one might have originally thought.

WPIAL champion William Gao, a junior from North Allegheny, had the top seed from the preliminaries at 49.91. Penn-Trafford junior Patton Graziano was the fourth seed, and Franklin Regional junior Holden Thomas was eighth.

But in the end, Thomas led the WPIAL trio with a fourth-place finish as he dropped nearly a second from his prelim time and was one of four to break 50 seconds as he posted a 49.95.

Graziano took fifth, and Gao finished sixth.

“I gave it my all, so I can’t really say anything bad about my race,” said Thomas, who came into the event seeded fifth after a earning bronze at WPIALs.

“I know everyone gave it their all, too, because it was such a close race between us all. We knew that it was going to be that way.”

Graziano, runner-up to Gao at WPIALs earlier this month and 10th at states last year, almost cracked the 50-second mark as he touched the wall in a time of 50.03.

“I felt like I raced really well,” Graziano said. “I don’t think I did anything wrong. It was just a close race. We knew it was going to be tight. It was fun.

“Me, Holden Thomas and William have been back and forth for what seems like forever. It was a little surprising to see all the changes in the order after what it was after prelims. It definitely was a barnburner.”

Gao recorded a finals time of 50.39.

Computer issues during the girls and boys finals delayed the proceedings at different points. Thomas, Graziano and Gao had a longer-than-usual wait beside the starting blocks before officials gave them the OK to enter the water and take their marks.

“It’s never fun to stand there like that, but you try to block that out the best you can,” Graziano said. “I just tried to think about my race and made sure I stayed focused on what I needed to do.”

Earlier in Saturday’s finals session, Graziano took 15th (47.35) in the consolation final of the 100 freestyle.

Thomas’ fourth in the 100 back, and a 13th-place finish from senior Villanova commit Aiden Bunker in the consolation final of the 100 breast (57.56), helped the Franklin Regional boys finish seventh in the final team standings with 109 points.

“I think we play into the smallness of the team compared to a lot of the bigger triple-A teams and schools,” Thomas said. “We’re so close with each other, and we hold each other accountable in practice. We make sure we’re all focused and prepared. We have that tight bond where we can be completely honest with each other.

“That makes us a better team overall so we can do the things like what we did here (at states).”

The Panthers were the second-best WPIAL team in the standings behind sixth-place Seneca Valley (113 points). The Raiders got a boost to their final point total with 36 points from three divers who placed second, fifth and 12th.

Franklin Regional kicked off the state meet Friday with gold in the 200 medley relay. The same four — Bunker, Thomas, junior Ben Holm and senior Jason Tosh — added a silver in the 200 free relay.

Bunker picked up a state medal with a third in the 200 individual medley.

“The guys’ attitude over the two days was really good, and we worked so hard getting up to it,” Franklin Regional coach Vic Santoro said.

“The coaching staff stressed having fun. We weren’t as happy as we could’ve been at WPIALs, but we wanted to make it work here. They stepped it up and did very well. It 32 years of coaching, it was the best state meet I ever was a part of. To walk away with a gold, a silver and other medals, what more can you ask for? Hopefully, they will take these memories and enjoy them for the rest of their lives.”

On the girls side, Franklin Regional senior Paityn Blakely capped her high school swim career in the consolation final of the 100 breast. She swam to a time of 1:06.65, good enough for 13th overall.

Latrobe sophomore Lauren Bell tied for 15th in the consolation final of the girls 100 free with a time of 52.72. Bell also swam Friday and took 10th in the 100 fly.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at

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