WPIAL finals berth on the line in rubber match between Franklin Regional, Highlands

Monday, February 26, 2018 | 8:12 PM

As is the norm at such times, WPIAL basketball coaches said all the right things upon the release of the playoff seeds and brackets earlier this month. Every team was approaching its postseason schedule one game, or one round, at a time. Nobody was looking ahead, loath to tempt fate or karma.

Yet on the right side of the Class 5A bracket lay a potential juicy semifinal matchup between No. 2 Highlands and No. 3 Franklin Regional, rivals itching for a rubber match after splitting their two meetings and the Section 3-5A championship.

They got their wish: They'll play at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Fox Chapel, a trip to Friday night's WPIAL Class 5A championship game on the line. And now they'll admit to looking forward to Round 3.

“It's going to be fun,” Franklin Regional coach Steve Scorpion said. “It's going to be two very good teams. Both teams are going to get after it. I'm assuming there's going to be a great crowd there, and I think there's a lot of excitement about the game.”

Although formerly members of the same football conference, Franklin Regional and Highlands didn't share much basketball history before the WPIAL slotted the two into the same section before the 2016-17 season.

It didn't take long for a certain animus to take shape. Franklin Regional swept the season series last season by a combined eight points, then blasted the Golden Rams, 70-46, in their section opener this season. Highlands returned the favor with an 87-68 rout Jan. 23.

Those games had a not-insignificant impact on the losers: Highlands is 16-1 since falling to Franklin Regional, while the Panthers have won eight in a row since their own lopsided loss.

“I don't think either team is going to come out here and blow the other one out,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “We're going in expecting a dogfight, and we're going to step up to the challenge.”

A semifinal appearance looked perhaps unlikely for either team before the season, as Highlands was replacing virtually its entire rotation and Franklin Regional was adjusting to Scorpion, a first-year coach. Even the high seed the WPIAL gave them raised some eyebrows.

But here they are, unapolegetically one win away from the WPIAL championship game after Highlands' 66-58 win over West Allegheny and Franklin Regional's 28-26 defensive slugfest victory over Moon in the quarterfinals.

“Once you start with that underdog chip on your shoulder, it never really goes away,” Franklin Regional senior Nate Leopold said. “You carry that with you through the entire season, and I think we both have.”

That chip carries over to the court, where beyond the teams' other similarities — good size, willing passers and scoring by committee — they share a certain knack for getting under their opponents' skin.

“There's not going to be one loose ball that someone's not on the ground, there's not going to be one jump ball that there's not going to be a little extra looking at or a little extra elbow when you're pulling at it,” Highlands sophomore Luke Cochran said. “It's just the nature of the beast. It's just basketball at the end of the day, but we both play with extremely great confidence. We carry our community on our back, and we take a lot of pride in it.

“There's no hate or love or anything: It's basketball.”

The January meeting toed the line between intense and extreme, with the teams combining for five technical fouls in the fourth quarter — four on one play late in the game.

Neither coach expects carryover Tuesday, not with so much on the line.

“One thing that is good about the rivalry and with me and coach Scorp is as both being basketball guys, we understand it's all on the court,” Stoczynski said. “You want your team to win, you're fighting for your guys. It's nothing personal. It's never been that. It's all basketball. We're going to shake hands whether it's on the good end or bad end. We just want to go out there and compete and show that we belong.”

The game carries plenty of meaning for both schools. Franklin Regional is making its first semifinal appearance since 1997 and still is seeking its first WPIAL title.

“We were in seventh grade (and) we realized the potential we had as a group of seniors, the six of us,” Leopold said. “That was one of the goals: We want to be one of the best classes in school history.

“We've had a great season … I'll be in the grocery store and somebody will say congratulations, and I won't know who they are. People are excited, and that's what we want to bring.”

Highlands, which made the WPIAL Class AAA championship game two seasons ago, finds itself making another deep playoff run with an entirely different group. Since winning the WPIAL title in 1995, the Golden Rams have been runners-up three times.

“When we practice here, we battle with each other,” Cochran said. “We'll clap in each other's face, and it'll just be competition. But at the end of the day, we just love the game, so we just want to make each other better. Whenever we play, it's more a carry-out thing. We're just going full steam ahead. There's no slowing down. We don't try to feel bad for anybody; we just want to win.”

One game at a time, one round at a time led to this game, this round.

Buckle up.

“It's going to be a tough game,” Scorpion said. “We've got our hands full with a very talented team. My kids (have) got to be ready to go, and they've got to be ready for a battle.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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