Top-seeded Franklin Regional edges Hampton to advance to WPIAL semifinals
Franklin Regional has spent the boys soccer season reducing opponents to donuts.
A tightfisted defense produced an unbeaten regular season, an accompanying section title and the top seed in the playoffs.
Now, you can add the team’s first trip to the WPIAL semifinals.
No. 1 Franklin Regional allowed a rare goal -- just the fourth one they’ve surrendered all year -- but still managed a determined 2-1 victory over No. 8 Hampton in the Class AAA quarterfinals Thursday night at Norwin Knights Stadium in North Huntingdon.
“Sometimes it’s a gutty performance to get you through,” Franklin Regional coach Rand Hudson said, “rather than the finesse. Nothing suspicious, just battle, battle, battle.”
It wasn’t the 14th shutout of the season for the Panthers (16-0-1), but that didn’t matter. This did: they move into the final four to take on No. 12 Thomas Jefferson (15-4-1) on Monday at a time and site to be determined.
Hampton (11-8) was seeking its first semifinal trip since 2011. The Talbots had a torrid, three-year stretch from 2009-11 when they won two WPIAL titles, a PIAA championship and two state runner-ups. This run was sawed off early.
The win, as progressive for the Panthers program as it was thrilling for its followers, had all the classic ingredients of a Panthers’ victory: non-stop passing, ball-control, hounding defense and just enough offense.
After giving up a tying goal, the Panthers responded with a spirited score to avoid the scare.
Senior defender Matt Kimmich’s reaction to the Panthers’ second goal was more intense than the act itself. After he bumped in a 70th-minute goal inside a crowded scramble in front of the net, he sprinted to the student section and let them know how happy he was.
“It was in the moment,” Kimmich said. “The atmosphere, it’s great; all the boys on the sideline getting all hyped. We went through a lot of adversity this season, people doubting us ... it’s really motivating us.”
Freshman Anthony DiFalco delivered a pinpoint, bending direct kick in front and Kimmich finished -- eventually -- to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead with 10:50 to go.
“It seemed like an eternity crossing the line there,” Hudson said.
Kimmich added, “I just stayed with the ball. I have a sense for where the ball is.
“This is an experienced team. We kept our poise, got our possession. We knew it was coming, we just had to stick with our gameplan.”
DiFalco gave the Panthers an early 1-0 lead when he took a gently placed lead pass from senior Ryan Beard and directed it left and past Talbots keeper Josh Winek in the ninth minute.
With 1-0 feeling like it might be the final, Hampton continued to reset its attack.
The Talbots finally found a seam in the Panthers defense as senior Harper Cook, a Rutgers recruit, sprinted down the far sideline on a breakaway and took on Panthers keeper Jeremy Lucas one-on-one.
Cook juked slightly and reared back as Lucas came out, then fired low to make it 1-1 in the 61st minute.
“That was a mistake we made there,” Hudson said. “It was a free kick we lost, missed a tackle, got to the corner ... we knew they were a really good counter team. If they hit you, they’re bang, bang, bang, right in the net and that’s exactly what they did.”
Winek made six saves for the Talbots.
“Franklin possesses the ball very well, and they have some creative forwards,” Hampton coach Matt McAwley said. “They can be very dangerous. We played the way we wanted to. I am proud of our guys; they really gave their all.”
Franklin Regional went to a “double six,” Hudson said, referring to a formation that brought two players up in front of the defense but, despite an increased attack from Hampton, did not allow another equalizer.
“I am happy for them,” Hudson said. “I am proud of them. It was a lot of guts at the end. We only went 14, 15 guys deep tonight as far as subbing so the guys gutted it out.”
Franklin Regional can qualify for the PIAA playoffs with a win in the semifinals. A loss would put them in the WPIAL third-place game for a state bid.
“They have two things in mind going forward,” Hudson said. “They are locked in and focused. I told them you guarantee yourself at least two more games after this. They don’t want to hear that, they want a bunch.”
Said Kimmich: “This is just a step going forward. We want to keep going.”