Franklin Regional football coach Greg Botta has stressed perseverance throughout the 2012 season.
The Panthers have had 22 of their 62 players incur some sort of injury during the season.
"Some have been lost for the season, some have missed games, and others are playing through an injury," Botta said. "Despite all the injuries, we have been able to persevere and play at a level that allowed us to qualify for the WPIAL playoffs."
Botta and his Panthers witnessed perseverance at a different level in their final regular season game against Derry Area.
"It was one of the most heart-warming things I've ever seen," said Botta, referring to the Panthers senior night ceremony. "Our left guard, Nick Helsley, was one of the seniors we honored. His father, Bill, has been in a wheelchair for years since suffering a stroke."
Bill Helsley was the head coach at Plum from 1985 until 1988.
"When he suffered the stroke, his doctors didn't think he would make it," Botta said. "He persevered and surprised everybody on senior night by standing and walking through the arch with Nick and his wife. Seeing him walk again was a perfect example of perseverance at a different level."
Franklin Regional qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs for the ninth consecutive year by tying for second place in the Greater Allegheny Conference. The Panthers finished in a three-way tie along with Knoch and Hampton.
"Our goal every year is to qualify for the playoffs," Botta said. "The injuries made it tougher for us to reach that goal, but the kids persevered."
Franklin Regional was seeded No. 7 in the 16-team bracket, thus earning a home site for the first round. The Panthers will play host to Elizabeth Forward tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. The Warriors qualified by tying for third place in the Big Nine Conference.
"The last time Elizabeth Forward qualified for the playoffs was 2005," said coach Mike LeDonne, who also remembers the last time the Warriors recorded a playoff victory. "That was in 2000, when I was in my first coaching stint. We beat Moon, 15-2, in the opening round."
The 2000 season was also the last time Elizabeth Forward recorded six victories. The Warriors posted a 5-3 record in the Big Nine and enter the playoffs with a 6-3 overall mark.
"Raising the bar was something we stressed last year when I began my second coaching stint at EF," LeDonne said. "The key was for the kids to learn how to win."
But it didn't look like it would happen this year, as Elizabeth Forward opened the season with two narrow losses to Trinity, 14-7, and Thomas Jefferson, 21-19.
"It was disappointing to lose our first two games, but our opponent in both games had qualified for the playoffs last year," LeDonne said. "It was actually a confidence builder for the kids to play so well in those games."
Despite the disappointing start, Elizabeth Forward rebounded to win six of their last seven games. Their only other loss was to West Mifflin, 27-0.
"We are somewhat familiar with Elizabeth Forward," Botta admitted. "My defensive coordinator, Frank Cortazzo, went to watch EF's game against West Mifflin. We played Thursday that week against Knoch. Frank went to see one of his buddies, who is the offensive coordinator at EF."
Franklin Regional also opened the season with a loss. The Panthers dropped a 21-17 decision to Mars, then won six consecutive games before a 17-13 loss at Hampton in week eight. The Panthers capped the regular season with a 62-0 victory against Derry. It was the fourth shutout for the Panthers defense.
"We take a lot pride in our defense," Botta said. "When I got here, we built the program with a strong defense. This year is no different."
Franklin Regional finished the regular season with the lowest point total of any defense in the WPIAL in Class AAA, as the Panthers allowed only 6.8 points per game.
"I watched Franklin Regional when they played Knoch on TV," LeDonne said. "Coach Botta always has a strong defense. But we've had a strong defense, too."
Elizabeth Forward ranks fifth among Class AAA teams in the WPIAL, allowing only 11.2 points per game.
Both teams also have potent offenses.
The Warriors have been led by quarterback JaQuan Davidson, a transfer from McKeeesport, and fullback Rex Pearse. Going into week nine, Davidson had rushed for 893 yards and thrown for 450. Pearse had 528 yards rushing, despite an ankle injury that has hampered him the past three weeks.
"JaQuan has been a great addition to our team, but Rex is the heart and soul of our team," LeDonne said. "He suffered an ankle injury in our game with West Mifflin and hasn't played on offense since. We wanted to save him for the playoffs."
Franklin Regional is led by tailback Dane Brown and quarterback Nico Lodovico. Brown has rushed for 644 yards, despite missing a few games with ankle and back injuries.
"Dane carried the ball six times [in the regular-season finale against Derry] and scored four touchdowns," Botta said. "He needs 48 yards to reach 4,000 for his career."
• Game: Elizabeth Forward (6-3) at Franklin Regional (7-2).
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Panthers Stadium, Murrysville.
• Skinny: It's a WPIAL Class AAA first-round pairing.