Confident Franklin Regional boys soccer ready to test skill against perennial contender West Allegheny
Franklin Regional never made it this far before in the WPIAL boys soccer season.
It might never have had a team this confident in its ability, either.
That’s not to say the top-ranked Panthers (17-0-1), set to play No. 2 West Allegheny (19-1) at 8 p.m. Thursday for the WPIAL Class AAA title at Highmark Stadium, are arrogant. They’re far from it. This is pure, honed skill, Cup-level stuff, blended together to form a cut-above unit.
Once the players, albeit naive to this level of high-school soccer but well-trained on the larger stages of youth and travel levels, realized their collective potential, the only question left to ask was, “Where do we park the bus at Station Square?”
“We have played Quad-A teams this year, playoff teams, and done well against them,” Franklin Regional coach Rand Hudson said. “Our preseason games, we played North Allegheny, West Allegheny ... we’ve welcomed all challenges and these guys know it. They’re ready to play anybody.”
Hudson coached many of the seniors at the youth level and watched their progression -- their attention to detail, their swiftness and ball skills, their precise timing and instincts.
Not many teams can play the style the top-seeded Panthers employ. Pass-it-around, possession soccer is not exciting. It can feel like halfcourt basketball at times, or dump-and-chase hockey.
But it works, and a one- or two-goal lead early is just about all the Panthers need.
Franklin Regional handled fellow Section 3 team Thomas Jefferson in the semifinals 5-1, letting a score through late for just its fifth goal allowed all season. This is a group that has 13 shutouts behind a sturdy back line and senior keeper Jeremy Lucas.
An early lead likely will be key again against a more fast-paced West Allegheny team that can score quickly and has 13 clean sheets of its own.
Senior forward Nathan Dragisich, a Duquesne commit, had 31 goals and 14 assists during the regular season for the second-seeded Indians.
“We just have to play our game and not play nervous,” Dragisich said. “We have to come out ready right at the start and outwork them. They are a good team because they don’t have a weak spot in their lineup. They have solid players in every position.”
Indians goalkeeper Braden Wurst pulled a rare feat in a thrilling semifinal win over Mars. He made some key saves and kicked in the game-winning goal -- the sixth penalty kick -- in a 4-3 victory. After five shooters and a full round of PKs, coach Kevin Amos looked down his bench for someone to lead off the second set.
Like a manager throwing a position player into an extra-inning game to pitch, Amos went to Wurst and his goal was best in the shootout.
West Allegheny, which won a WPIAL title in 2013 and lost in the finals in 2014 and last season, has outscored Franklin Regional, 106-77, in two more games.
Hudson said his team trusting in its style is the foundation for another victory.
“It’s a game, it’s a game you have played all the time,” Hudson said he told his players. “People said it’s hard to beat a team (Thomas Jefferson) three times. It is, but go out there and do it. If you do what you’ve done, your skill ... it will shine through.
“Things may go wrong at some point. They may get one in on us or we have a flub and they almost score. Don’t turn on each other, just trust your training and your abilities and it’s going to come through.”
Senior Zack Snider, who had his first career hat trick in the semis, said the Panthers won’t deviate from their script.
“Same thing we have done all year,” he said. “Keep working hard, keep grinding at practice, sticking together and being the team that we are.”
Many title-winning teams have stars, names you’ve heard before. Franklin Regional could have those, only the team’s style doesn’t lend itself to isolated attention.
“It’s about a team goal, not individuals,” freshman standout Anthony DiFalco said. “We all want to win. These guys have been to the playoffs the last few years but haven’t been able to win the WPIAL. We want to win for the program.”
The Panthers made the quarterfinals twice in the last three years before finally breaking through for their first semifinal appearance.
And now, this: a chance at WPIAL gold.
Forget the, the-rest-is-gravy talk. Franklin Regional is here to finish the job.
“Whatever happens I know this next game is going to be a doozy,” Hudson said. “It should be good for soccer and for anybody involved.”