Westmoreland boys soccer preview: Franklin Regional chasing 3rd straight WPIAL title

Sunday, September 6, 2020 | 12:01 AM

Forty-two wins, 33 shutouts, 15 goals allowed.

The numbers speak for themselves at Franklin Regional, where the boys soccer program has put together quite a two-year run.

The Panthers have all but monopolized the space on stingy defense with a deliberate style of play that, paired with some exceptional homegrown talent, they’ve parlayed into back-to-back WPIAL Class 3A championships.

A new season is here and it is scary to think this year’s team might be the best of the bunch.

“The talent is definitely there,” coach Rand Hudson said. “This group experienced things that some of our other groups haven’t at a young age. The experience is there.”

Franklin Regional went 21-1-1 last season and 20-1-1 two years ago, reaching the PIAA semifinals both times. The state eased its stance on not allowing spectators into high school sporting events and it’s a good thing for Franklin Regional fans: this team looks like it’s going to be fun to watch.

An abundance of battle-tested players return in an effort to level a three-peat. Not that the accomplishment will come easy.

“The thing is, when you have accomplished some things, you don’t want to get into that comfort zone,” Hudson said. “You have to keep pushing the envelope.”

With star junior forward Anthony DiFalco back alongside a pair of High School All-American Game nominees in seniors Cole Kaforey and Division I prospect Zach Lorenz, the Panthers should have plenty of offensive punch.

“No pressure at all on the coach with those guys,” Hudson said with a laugh.

DiFalco is a gifted scorer who already has spent time training with D.C. United and FC Cincinnati. He decided to avoid the academy route for now and stay at Franklin.

“There won’t be any hiding him, that’s for sure,” Hudson said. “I’m sure he’ll see the usual double- and triple-teams. It’s up to him how he handles that. It’s tough for a forward that way. He will have to fight through it and get loose.”

Another Division I prospect, DiFalco scored 30 goals last season and was an all-state and United Soccer Coaches Region II All-American selection.

“I think we should take it a game at a time,” said DiFalco, who also kicks for the football team. “Nothing is ever guaranteed so we are going to have to work hard if we want to try and make it back to Highmark (Stadium for the WPIAL finals).”

DiFalco is not overly concerned with suffocating defenses.

“We have a bunch of different players that can score as well so I don’t think it should be something to worry about,” he said.

And about the Panthers’ ever-present defense, the connective tissue returns in the back three of Kaforey and seniors Luke Kimmich and Jake Sciorilli. Goalkeeper Gianni Diacopoulos also is back for his senior season.

The Panthers have not given up more than two goals in a game since the 2018 playoffs.

Joining DiFalco at forward will be sophomore Colton Hudson, with senior Blake Cooper also possibly seeing time at the top. Senior speedster Isaac Gamwo, whom coach Hudson expects to have a breakout season, is one of the top midfielders.

He also thinks Cooper and Lorenz can be difference-makers.

Sophomore Jake Kimmich could provide a boost on the wing as he occupies a spot held down last season by the proficient Nolan Scholze, who graduated.

Senior Zach Johnston, a forward or holding midfielder, will look to make an impact as he returns from injury.

Some younger players who are considered varsity ready, coach Hudson said, include freshman Dom Kaforey, sophomore Sam Dawson, who moved here from England, and sophomores Jake Zimmerman and Billy Christafano.

Coach Hudson said the more compact offseason caused by covid-19 concerns has taken a toll on the team’s training and fitness, but thinks that will be the case with many teams around the state.

Sloppy play might be a hurdle to clear, at least early on.

He noted a cramped, 14-game schedule will have his team playing 10 games in 16 days.

“That’s a concern,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

The Panthers will be in a new-look Section 4 with Gateway, Kiski Area, Obama Academy, Penn Hills, Plum, West Mifflin, and Woodland Hills.

The season opens Sept. 14.

Other teams to watch

• Belle Vernon returns 29-goal scorer and All-WPIAL forward Daniel Sassak from a team that took a 16-1 record into the playoffs last season.

That team, which set a program record with an 11-0 start and tied a mark for regular-season wins, started six sophomores but will be more experienced.

Senior Nick Nagy is back with the team after missing last season due to playing hockey. He was a starter as a freshman and sophomore.

Senior Austin Martin and junior Tyler Mocello will anchor the back line and junior Tyler Kovatch is a key forward.

“I expect us to be in the hunt for the section,” coach Rob Miele said. “The idea of building off of last year is certainly valid since we return nearly everyone. We have a lot of experience and it was meaningful minutes in big games, not just young guys getting time in a rebuilding season.”

Greensburg Central Catholic is the defending WPIAL Class A champion and finished one win shy of Hershey for the PIAA title game.

With all-everything forward Nate Ward gone, the Centurions may have to rely on a more balanced attack, led by sophomore Carlo Denis, junior Mason Fabean and senior Ricco Ciccarelli, a formidable forward trio.

Denis had 25 goals and Fabean scored 19.

“The expectations and goals have not changed,” coach Tyler Solis said. “We have a great opportunity for similar if not more success. We trust our system and program which now has the experience of winning on the big stage.

“We’re looking forward to defending our championship.”

Junior keeper Max House also returns.

• After a lenghthy first-round drought, Norwin broke through and has reached at least the WPIAL quarterfinals two years in a row. It was the WPIAL runner-up in 2018. A mostly young team a year ago, the Knights bring back seniors Ian Brown, Brendan Ash and Nathan Bown, and juniors Riley Zimmerman, Caleb Yuricha and Andrew Yanez, the goalkeeper.

“Expectations couldn’t be higher right now,” Knights coach Scott Schuchert said. “We have a core of experienced core players returning. Our seniors are ready to lead the charge and those juniors are extremely talented and will hopefully give us an opportunity to compete for a championship.”

Schuchert said Class 4A is wide open.

• A new coach has taken over at Penn-Trafford in Sotiri Tsourekis, who played at Pitt and professionally overseas. Junior Nathan Schlessinger is one of the better midfielders in 4A. The Warriors had a rare, down year in 2019 with just four wins.

Southmoreland has not won a playoff game since 2013 but the Scotties only lost five seniors from a group that tied for second in Section 2-3A. Eight returning lettermen will lead a senior-heavy team. Defensively, the Scotties will look to seniors Nick Formato, Jake Van Arsdale and Andrew Rodriguez.

Tyler Dunn, Brandon Mehall and Brendan Moore should lead the offense.

“This team will not be satisfied with simply making it to the playoffs,” coach Jeff Schaeffer said. “The players believe they have the talent and experience to advance beyond the first round. This group of seniors has been together through many years and different levels of soccer. They have done the right things to prepare for this season, and certainly have the potential to reach their goals.”

• WPIAL newcomer Ligonier Valley will play in Class 2A.

Players to watch

• Nolan Agostini, Sr., MF, Latrobe

• Nate Bown, Sr., D, Norwin

• Carlo Denis, So., F, Greensburg C.C.

• Mason Fabean, Jr., F, Greensburg C.C.

• Anthony DiFalco, Jr., F, Franklin Regional

• Cole Kaforey, Sr., D, Franklin Regional

• Zach Lorenz, Sr., MF, Franklin Regional

• Daniel Sassak, Jr., F, Belle Vernon

• Nathan Schlessinger, Jr., MF, Penn-Trafford

• Lucas Toohey, Sr., MF, Mt. Pleasant

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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25 WPIAL soccer players make all-state teams
Defense forms backbone of Quaker Valley soccer’s state title team
Quaker Valley reflects on memorable run to another PIAA boys soccer title
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