Franklin Regional defense stands tall in shutting down high-scoring West Allegheny
As shot after shot came at Jeremy Lucas like he was inside a batting cage with the machine cranked to MLB, the Franklin Regional senior goalkeeper and his defense went all MLS in the closing minutes of the WPIAL Class AAA championship.
Another spirited defensive effort, aided by a first-half goal from emerging standout freshman Anthony DiFalco, carried the top-seeded Panthers to a 1-0 victory late Thursday night at Highmark Stadium for their first WPIAL title in the sport.
The team ran to its student section to share the historic moment.
“Our defense is so good because we just possess the ball and just wear other teams down,” said Lucas, who made a half-dozen saves, including some that tested his reflexes in the final minutes.
“They don’t get beat one-on-one and make fantastic plays.”
With the talent it had, coupled with the drop to Class AAA, the Panthers (18-0-1) anticipated a championship-caliber season. But they knew they would likely run into high-powered West Allegheny at some point.
The Indians had scored 22 goals in the postseason and 106 for the season. But Franklin Regional had posted 13 shutouts and surrendered just five scores all year, so something was going to give. It wasn’t the Panthers’ defense.
They swarmed the net and added an extra layer of security in front of Lucas to post clean sheet No. 14. And West Allegheny (19-2) finished as the runner-up for the second year in a row.
“It’s their positioning,” Lucas said of the defense, “and just how hard they work for 80 minutes each and every night this season.
“I’ve had a lot of help all season. When you are playing a team that has scored over 100 goals in a season, it was to be a full team effort.”
And then there was that skillful goal by DiFalco, that gem that wooed the crowd and showed why the freshman forward is considered such a rare talent by coach Rand Hudson and those who follow the area soccer scene.
“We knew what he could do, he plays Beadling (Cup soccer) with a bunch of our guys,” West Allegheny coach Kevin Amos said.
Senior Auston Kranick moved the ball into the final third of the field, drew some defenders his way, then dropped a pass to a fast-closing DiFalco to the right side.
A hesitation fake allowed him to get set but instead of shooting with his left foot, he got crafty and tried something only select players might: he went opposite-leg and hit the ball with the outside of his right foot to beat Indians keeper Braden Wurst high.
DiFalco followed with an extended “shoosh” to the West Allegheny side of the bleachers.
Hudson called DiFalco a “stone cold killer” when it comes to scoring goals, in addition to him being a special player with endless potential.
DiFalco, no stranger to the big stage with two national championships in Cup, was almost sheepish explaining the score, even calling it “lucky.”
“I didn’t know what was happening in the moment,” he said. “I think it deflected off a defender. But it was amazing.”
The Panthers’ big year will continue Tuesday when they make their PIAA playoff debut against District 6 champion Bellefonte (12-2-1) at a time and site to be determined.
Hudson was pleased with his team’s balance and control with the precarious lead.
“On the big stage, kids get nervous,” Hudson said. “We tried to preach to them, keep the ball, keep the ball. (West Allegheny) came after us the whole time; usually teams slow down after a while because they get tired. Our guys didn’t let up.”
Senior Matt Kimmich literally put his body on the line -- and inside the line of the goal box -- to help Lucas keep West Allegheny attempts out of the net.
“We did a really good job toward the end of that game,” Kimmich said. “I am probably going to feel it in the morning (Friday). Definitely some bumps and bruises. But it’s the type of game you got to do what you got to do.
“This was my goal coming into high school: I wanted to get this WPIAL title and accomplish it with some of my best of friends. This means the world.”
Franklin Regional’s district title was the first by a boys soccer team in Westmoreland County since Greensburg Central Catholic won in 2009.
The county never has had a boys PIAA champion -- or a state finalist -- in the sport.