Hempfield football escapes Franklin Regional rally for win

Friday, September 10, 2021 | 11:12 PM

Hempfield made a concerted effort to run the football to open the second half, an impose-your-will mentality driven by junior running back Gino Caesar.

Franklin Regional couldn’t stop it.

The Panthers nearly rallied, pulling even with the Spartans in the fourth, but the force of the rushing attack and a late special teams touchdown by Eli Binakonsky allowed Hempfield to escape with a 30-28 victory on Friday night.

The game was played at Spartan Stadium. Or, is the field now known as Caesar’s Palace?

“They couldn’t stop us,” said Caesar, who ran for 215 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries. He carried 17 times for 175 yards in the second half. “I never imagined I would get 39 carries. It didn’t feel like that many. Our offensive line played great.”

Said Hempfield coach Mike Brown: “I actually said I wanted to get (Caesar) less carries with some (conference) games coming up. But he got into a rhythm, and we were going to run him until he tapped out.”

But he didn’t tap out. Caesar got stronger as the game wore on, beginning with a third-quarter drive that allowed the Spartans (2-1) to assert their rushing attack. They won despite four turnovers, although the Panthers weren’t much sharper with three giveaways.

Hempfield ran it 16 straight times out of halftime, 12 carries by Caesar, who punched it in from the 3 to tie it 14-14.

“I was a little bit tired, but I just had the adrenaline rush and our line played great,” Caesar said.

The Spartans recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff with 5 minutes, 50 seconds to play, and Caesar carried two more times, busting the second run for a 32-yard touchdown. For good measure, he added the 2-point conversion to give Hempfield a 22-14 lead.

“When I took Gino out and put in (Ethan) Zontek, he was pretty upset,” Brown said. “Hats off to our offensive line. We challenged them. We don’t have a lot of (depth). I asked them, do you want to see (Caesar) go? They rose to the occasion.”

The Spartans, though, gave the Panthers (1-2) a gift-wrapped opportunity with two 15-yard penalties, a roughing-the-passer and personal foul, to set up the tying score. Panthers quarterback Connor Donnelly zipped a 14-yard touchdown to Maddox Morrison to make it 22-22 early in the fourth.

Binakonsky, a transfer from Jeannette, then blocked a punt and returned it 20 yards with 7:54 to play, and the Spartans took a 30-22 lead after Caesar’s 2-point conversion.

“Eli played great tonight,” Brown said. “I challenged him, too, and he came through. He was all over the field for us.”

Franklin Regional’s Brent Hickey smothered the next Spartans’ drive, forcing a punt to make a short field. On the next play, Donnelly threw a 47-yard strike to Ayden Hudock with 3:37 left. The 2-point pass failed and Hempfield clung to a 30-28 advantage before finally running out the clock with Caesar.

“I thought our defense played well in the first half,” Franklin Regional coach Lance Getsy said. “We made some stupid mistakes and turned the ball over. It’s on me. I have to do a better job. We have weapons, and we showed that. I was impressed with (Hempfield’s) line, and (Caesar) ran hard. Our defense was out there a long time.”

Franklin Regional, which used three quarterbacks in the first quarter, including moving Caden Smith into the wildcat formation, took a 14-8 lead into halftime, ending a first half when neither team wanted to hold on to the ball.

After Hempfield turned it over on downs, Donnelly was intercepted by Tyson Gregory. The Spartans were stifled by a third-down sack from Roman Sarnic, but the Panthers could not take advantage of the momentum.

Sarnic, who moved under center, completed a couple of passes but was sacked by Anthony Vallano and Binakonsky, and then he was picked off by Daniel Katonka to stamp out an early second-quarter drive.

But the Panthers bounced back as Morrison intercepted Jake Phillips and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead with 7:44 left in the second quarter. Morrison jumped a flanker screen and went untouched.

The Panthers struck again in the second when Smith, back under center, pulled off a shovel pass to Hudock, and the electric sophomore raced 85 yards for a score to make it 14-0. Hudock caught two passes for 132 yards and also had an interception.

Franklin Regional tried to punt on a 4th and 3 from its own 30 just before the half, but Hempfield pressured Sarnic into another sack to set up golden field position.

Four plays later, Hempfield finally got on the scoreboard when Phillips found Ian Tuffs for an 11-yard score on 4th and 3. A bad exchange occurred on the extra-point, but holder Keiran Lippman alertly delivered a strike to Brennan Knight for the 2-point conversion to make it 14-8.

“It was a punt. We just didn’t block, and they got through,” Getsy said.

Smith completed three passes for 112 yards. Donnelly finished 4 of 10 for 69 yards and two scores. He and Sarnic were intercepted.

Phillips was 9 of 13 for 118 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Lippman and Tuffs each had four catches and both made highlight grabs.

Franklin Regional had a chance to take an early lead after Sarnic recovered a fumble. The Panthers sent out Smith out in the wildcat, and he instantly sparked the offense, running for 7 yards and then throwing a 30-yard pass to Jared Ribar. But the drive stalled, and freshman Joseph Bayne missed a 20-yard field goal.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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