With three teams tied for first place and four others within two games, the Greater Allegheny Conference race could come down to several key factors this season.
Unfortunately for Franklin Regional, one such factor — health — is not currently in its favor.
The Panthers (3-1, 3-1) began the week tied with Highlands and Mars atop the Greater Allegheny. However, with several starters out because of injury, the team doesn’t look like the healthiest pick to win the conference.
“We probably have four or five starters out for a long period of time,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. “… We’re kind of banged up right now. We’ve got to get better, and we’ve got to have other kids step up.”
Current starters missing time include two-way lineman Adam Mihoci, sidelined with a knee injury; linebacker Marty Novak, who suffered a shoulder injury during practice week; and wide receivers Patrick Kukalis and Carter Patrick, who both got injured during a scrimmage against Kiski this summer.
Additionally, senior quarterback/defensive back Charan Singh is playing only on offense because of an injured ankle. Tight end Dylan Wallace and lineman Sam Sedivy are just getting back into the lineup after getting injured during the preseason.
“Some of the guys I know will be out for a (considerable) amount of time,” Botta said. “I’ve got to be a realist in my position. … It’s just a gradual process, and one I was hoping not to find myself (in) because of the inexperience we have.”
Because of the injuries, Franklin Regional started three sophomores last week in Charlie Mazon, Jake Pickup and Jake Lauer, while a fourth — Jake Ross — played extensively in the secondary because of Singh’s injury.
The younger players, as well as the holdovers, responded with a 42-20 victory over Greensburg Salem.
“I was pleased not only with their effort but how they continually bounced back after going behind the first couple quarters,” Botta said. “We answered a score with a score, and that was very important. Finally, in the end of the third quarter and beginning of fourth quarter, we started to pull away.”
After being shut out, 17-0, against Highlands in Week 3 — the first time Franklin Regional was shut out since Oct. 9, 2009, against Mars — the Panthers’ offense responded with a big game against Greensburg Salem. Paul Emanuele (15 carries for 100 yards), Brett Zanotto (seven for 100, three touchdowns) and Singh (eight for 107, one touchdown) all topped 100 yards on the ground as Franklin Regional scored a season-high 42 points.
Botta does have some questions defensively, however, after Franklin Regional allowed 20 points in the first three quarters against Greensburg Salem. That performance came after the Panthers allowed Highlands running back Elijah Jackson to rush for 232 yards the week before.
“I’ll be quite frank: I’m very disappointed in the defense,” Botta said. “That’s not the type of defense we play, giving up the yardage we did the past two weeks. We’ve got to fix that.”
With key defensive players like Mihoci and Novak out, Franklin Regional is relying on players like Mazon and Josh Sabo-Pediconi to play both offense and defense — roles they’re unaccustomed to.
However, after Zanotto missed three quarters of the Highlands game with an injury, he returned to the lineup and recorded 17 tackles against Greensburg Salem.
“Him in the middle solidifies us,” Botta said. “He’s a kid we can’t afford to lose if we continue on down the line searching for a playoff spot.”
Franklin Regional will take a break from conference play this week with a home game against Belle Vernon (1-3). While the Leopards are struggling, Botta said they played strong games against West Mifflin and Elizabeth Forward before their opponents pulled away in the second half.
“I’m not taking this team lightly,” he said. “And what I want to do is get through this game without getting anybody else hurt.”