Tomorrow's WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinal football playoff game between Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Regional at Elizabeth Forward High School, features a pair of top-ranked teams.
"Franklin Regional opened the season as the No. 1 team in the rankings," reminded Jaguars coach Bill Cherpak, when asked about his team's opponent. "And if it wasn't for injuries, they might still be there."
Thomas Jefferson (10-0), the Big Nine Conference champions, finished the regular season as the only unbeaten team in the 16-team Class AAA bracket, thus were seeded No. 1.
Franklin Regional (8-2) was seeded No. 8 after tying with Hampton and Knoch for second place in the Greater Allegheny Conference behind Mars Area. The Panthers advanced to the quarterfinals after pounding Elizabeth Forward, 44-7, in the first round.
"I'm a little disappointed that the game is at Elizabeth Forward again," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said, referring to the fact the Jaguars have only 7.43 miles to travel. "In 2009, we faced Thomas Jefferson in the playoffs and that game was at the same site. That's a home site for them."
Botta also pointed out that Thomas Jefferson played at Elizabeth Forward in week two of the regular season.
"[Thomas Jefferson] played there at the start of the season," Botta said. "That's an advantage for them."
Thomas Jefferson earned its quarterfinal berth with a 63-19 domination of Hollidaysburg. It was the 17th consecutive first-round victory for the Jaguars.
"This is the third time I've faced 'Cherp' in the playoffs and all three games were barnburners," Botta said. "I'm expecting the same in this game."
In the 2009 game, Thomas Jefferson came in as the top seed and posted a 27-14 victory against the No. 8-seeded Panthers in the quarterfinals.
Thomas Jefferson was also seeded No. 1 in 2006 when the two teams faced off in the semifinals at North Hills High School, and the Jaguars came away with a 30-9 victory.
The two teams also met in 2005, the year Franklin Regional claimed WPIAL and PIAA titles. The No. 5-seeded Panthers recorded a 31-14 upset of the No. 2-seeded Jaguars in the WPIAL title game at Heinz Field.
"The thing that impresses me the most about Thomas Jefferson is how well they are coached," said Botta. "They are always technically flawless and very physical. That's why they are 10-0."
Thomas Jefferson has the most potent offense in Class AAA, while Franklin Regional has the stingiest defense. The Jaguars are averaging 44.9 points per game, 6.5 per game more than any other team in Class AAA.
"They have a strong passing attack, but can also run the ball," Botta said. "[Jaguars quarterback Joe] Carroll has done a great job running their offense. He has a quick release and all the tools of an excellent quarterback. And I've never seen so many receivers run patterns so well."
Carroll has completed 99 of 168 passes for 1,850 yards and 34 touchdowns. His favorite targets are Zach Schademan (44 catches, 926 yards, 20 touchdowns) and Jake Mascaro (27 catches, 514 yards, 9 touchdowns).
Jake Farrell (108 carries, 748 yards, 11 touchdowns) is the Jaguars top rusher.
"We rested a few players on Friday," said Cherpak, referring to the fact that Schademan and Farrell did not play against Hollidaysburg. "We had some people banged up a little bit, so we decided to have them rest up for the quarterfinals."
Franklin Regional has had injury problems all season, as 22 of the 62 players on Botta's roster have been injured at one point in the season or are still injured. But the Panthers come into the quarterfinals with a lineup fortified by the return of tailback Dane Brown.
"We used Dane sparingly in our last regular-season game against Derry," Botta said. "He made a full return on Friday and looked great. He was making the lateral cuts that make him so good. It was so good to see Dane back to his old form."
Brown rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries against Elizabeth Forward to eclipse the 4,000-plateau. For the season, Brown has rushed for 795 yards on 109 carries.
"Just having Dane walk on the field in full pads for practice was a big confidence boost for the kids," Botta said. "They mobbed him in the end zone when he scored his first touchdown of the day."
Franklin Regional also has a strong passing attack, with Nico Lodovico leading the way. Lodovico has completed 67 of 128 passes for 1,189 yards and 14 touchdowns. His favorite target is Charan Singh (25 catches, 451 yards).
"[Brown] looked pretty darn good to me [on tape]," Cherpak said. "It didn't look as if he was injured. And you just can't concentrate on Brown. They have a very good quarterback, too."
The winner of the Thomas Jefferson/Franklin Regional game will face the winner of the West Allegheny/Montour winner in the semifinals.
• Game: Thomas Jefferson (10-0) vs. Franklin Regional (8-2).
• When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
• Where: Elizabeth Forward's Warrior Stadium.
• Skinny: The unbeaten Jaguars face a stiff challenge against the Panthers, who are finally getting healthy after a laundry list of injuries this year.