Nearly flawless defense keys Franklin Regional boys soccer playoff run

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Friday, October 25, 2019 | 7:40 PM


Franklin Regional puts a premium on goals.

As in, when you play against the Panthers, you can’t have any.

The Panthers (17-0-1) are a stingy, defensive juggernaut in WPIAL Class AAA boys soccer with their back line strength complementing their vast offensive skill set — or is it the other way around?

The numbers are staggering: They have 15 shutouts and have allowed just three goals in 18 games.

All three goals have come on set pieces, too, meaning this team does not give up anything cheap.

“A lot of teams don’t play with three in the back,” Panthers coach Rand Hudson said. “Our back three give us great pressure. They’re all great one-on-one. They’re all strong and quick.”

And therein might lie the secret to why the team has been so good at shutting down opponents. There isn’t some bit of strategy Hudson won’t divulge. He knows his defenders are aces and he knows his team is content playing possession soccer.

Juniors Cole Kaforey, Luke Kimmich and Jake Sciorilli scour the backfield with their skills, all covering extra ground and keeping shots at a minimum for Franklin Regional, the top seed in the WPIAL playoffs that will take on No. 12 Blackhawk (12-3-4) in the semifinals at 4 p.m. Saturday at Hampton.

The defending WPIAL champion Panthers breezed through the first round with a 16-0 win over Laurel Highlands, but were taken to task by No. 8 Trinity in the quarterfinals, finally sneaking out of Fox Chapel on Wednesday with a 1-0 victory.

It was the ninth consecutive shutout for Franklin Regional, which needed a Nolan Scholze goal early in the second half to move on.

The Panthers outshot the Hillers, 20-1. That one shot was batted away by junior goalkeeper Gianni Diacopoulos with 19 minutes, 52 seconds to play. it was another clean sheet for a team that had 16 of them last season — that group allowed seven goals, four in the playoffs.

But Kaforey, Kimmich and Sciorilli were backups then, along for the ride as the Panthers won their first WPIAL title. Now it’s their turn to hold down the fort.

“Those guys could move around if we needed to,” Hudson said. “They could play in the midfield. You can’t say that about a lot of defenders. They have good skills, good feet. Cole is almost flawless in what he does.

“They were on the bench last year, but they saw what that team did and they know the expectations are big.”

The Trinity game caught the Panthers’ attention and forced them slightly out of their comfort zone, but they did enough to win.

“Survive and advance, right?” Hudson said. “You just need one more than the other team. (Trinity) worked super-hard and had a great gameplan. I told our guys at halftime we might have to win on an ugly goal.”

The Panthers aren’t afraid to mix it up on the defensive end, but their offense usually is straight finesse. When players like sophomore Anthony DiFalco get space to create, volley and cut to the net, big things happen for the Panthers, who have 95 goals.

But again, it starts with that defense. All it takes is one goal when the unit is on its game.

“We know we can come back in the second half,” said Diacopoulos, who has a front-row seat to watch the back liners work and rarely gets peppered with shots. “We have great chemistry, and we know we can rely on each other. We’re always prepared for what is coming.”

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

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