The Franklin Regional baseball team entered last week still needing to do a little work to sew up a spot in the postseason.
The Panthers exited the week as not only a WPIAL playoff qualifier, but also one of the hottest teams in Class AAAA.
Franklin Regional, which is having one of the best seasons in school history, is playoff bound for the second year in a row after finishing second to Central Catholic in Section 3 with an 8-2 record. The Panthers were the only section team to defeat the Vikings this season.
The Panthers extended their winning streak to seven games on Tuesday with a 12-2 rout of Penn Hills, which improved their overall record to 15-3. The Panthers were scheduled to play at Greater Latrobe Wednesday, before hosting Connellsville in Friday's regular-season finale.
Last week was a wildly successful one for Franklin Regional, which went from 5-2 to 8-2 in section play behind the strength of three wins that differed greatly in how they played out.
Franklin Regional shut out host Gateway, 10-0, on Monday. The Panthers then beat the other two playoff teams from the section, knocking off Central Catholic in a slugfest, 17-16, in nine innings on Wednesday, followed by a 2-0 victory at Plum on Friday. Central Catholic (14-3, 9-1) won the section title, while Plum (14-5, 7-3) placed third.
"They were vastly different," Franklin Regional coach Bob Sadler said of the victories against Central Catholic and Plum. "One game we were able to win with our hitting. The other we won with defense and pitching.
"It was great to see the team win both games, depending on the flow of the game. They've done a great job recently of executing."
Against Central Catholic, senior center fielder Nick Vento singled in the winning run. Vento had three hits and three RBIs, and senior shortstop Danny McGrath went 5 for 6 and scored four runs.
In the triumph against Plum, junior catcher Brandon Nania snapped a scoreless tie with a sacrifice fly in the sixth to provide what proved to be the winning run. Senior pitcher Nick DiDiano tossed seven shutout innings.
"That's the story of this team. They have a never-say-die attitude," Sadler said. "They come out every day and fight. We've had our backs against the wall several times, and they've come through."
Franklin Regional has the ability to burst right through a wall with an offense that scores runs by the boatload. Heading into this week, the Panthers were averaging 9.2 runs per game and were 10-0 in games where they scored at least 10 runs.
"They're very good hitters," said Sadler. "I think one through nine, I like what we bring to the table. Their approach at the plate is great."
Several players have stood out -- McGrath, Vento, Nania and John Bondi. In statistics compiled through May 5, McGrath was hitting .540 with 18 RBIs, Vento was hitting .509 with three home runs and 20 RBIs, and Bondi was hitting .468. Nania was hitting better than .400 as well with three home runs. McGrath bats leadoff, Vento hits third and Nania is the cleanup hitter.
"Those four have done an excellent job," Sadler said, "and we have five other guys who complement them very well."
Sadler said of McGrath: "He rarely strikes out. I think he has one strikeout all year. He's the type of player who simply refuses to give in to a count. He hits the ball to all fields. When he's on the bases, he's always a threat to run."
A solid pitching staff led by sophomore Justin Johnson and DiDiano has posted four shutouts. Junior Brett Myers and sophomore Alex Gessinger have also been key contributors.
"In my opinion, we have a lot of pitchers who can be extremely effective," Sadler said.
When the WPIAL playoffs commence next week, Franklin Regional will be looking for its first postseason win since 2007.
"Every team that makes the playoffs is hoping to win a WPIAL title," Sadler said. "But we know that we can't look that far ahead. One thing we always tell our kids is to take care of the game in front of you."