The Franklin Regional boys' soccer team is playing "the beautiful game."
Take last week's game at Kiski Area, for example.
Ryan Watson had gone to the corner for the Panthers in the 15th minute. He kicked a perfect curl across the 6-yard box. Before anyone could react, Jake Roberge headed the ball into the net. The goal put Franklin up, 1-0, on Kiski's own Davis Field.
"As a coach, you could not have instructed better," recalled Panthers coach Ryan Montgomery. "[Roberge] is a very special player."
Roberge, a sophomore, can play multiple positions but usually takes the center midfield for Franklin (7-0-2, 6-0-1).
Early in the second half of the game at Kiski, a scrum erupted in front of Panthers sophomore goalkeeper Chris Ralph. With Ralph's view to the ball blocked, Kiski Area tied the score. But Ralph was a critical reason that the game didn't end in a Kiski Area win.
"Our goalkeeper has been excellent," said Montgomery. "He's made key saves to keep us in games, especially early on when maybe we've struggled a bit.
"I can't even begin to guess how many saves he's had.".
Ralph has recorded four shutouts.
As the Panthers took on Hempfield Area last Wednesday, midfielder Brent Velasquez saw forward James Young with an opportunity. It was a long shot, but Velasquez gunned the ball to Young at the 40 yard line. Young shot the ball and scored a goal in the 20th minute.
Young's goal turned out to be a game-winner, because the Panthers' defense held solidly.
"[Center defensive back] Nick Bolkovac has been an absolute rock in the back for us," Montgomery said.
Franklin's plays may look like a highlight reel, but Montgomery explained that there's a lot that goes into such successful execution.
"In general, I think we're very organized," Montgomery said. "We definitely meet the challenges of our opponent and find a way to counter those challenges to win games."
This season, the Panthers' roster is an interesting mix of classes. The seniors remember their last playoff appearance, a quarterfinal loss to Moon in the 2010 season.
"Our back line is composed of all seniors," said Montgomery. "It really gives us a good jumping-off point."
Bolkovac, Mason Settino, Tyler Schott, Danny McGrath and Austin Jaliela are among Franklin's senior defenders this year.
The freshmen and sophomores are motivated by factors other than a playoff taste, however. Watson and Roberge are sophomores, and Young is a freshman.
"These younger guys didn't have [the 2010] playoff experience, so they're just playing hard," said Montgomery. "Our goal is to make some noise and win games in the playoffs."
Although this season is Montgomery's first as head coach at Franklin, he has coached many Panthers for several years with the Century United club. Ralph, Watson, midfielder Danny Ferriero and forward Timmy Jolayemi are among the Franklin players who have been coached by Montgomery in the Century United Club.
Montgomery's knowledge of the current Franklin players has allowed him to see places where their play may improve, even alongside their "big play" tendencies.
"We have some young, explosive players who make big plays but struggle with the little things," said Montgomery.
Likewise, Franklin's seniors often act as coaches to the younger players.
"They'll say, 'Make this decision,' or 'Make this run,' or 'Look for this ...'" he said.
Montgomery explained that the older players are helping to bridge the gap between the big plays and the ability to anticipate for an entire 80 minutes.
"It's a nice complement to what we do as a coaching staff," Montgomery said.
Montgomery noted that at this point, a scoring star has not emerged for Franklin. The goals simply come from all over.
"We don't have just one top goal-scorer right now," he said.
As of Monday, Young had four goals for the Panthers and Velasquez had three.
"[The varied scoring] is definitely contributing to our success," Montgomery said.
Overall, Franklin's mix of rock-like veterans and "beautiful game" players is driving the Panthers forward.
"We've got smart guys who are able to rise to the challenges," said Montgomery. "We want them to be able to go out into the game and mix things up to handle the challenges."