Under first-year coach Ryan Montgomery, Franklin Regional improved by eight wins from 2011 to 2012.
With the majority of their forwards and midfielders returning from last season's WPIAL quarterfinalist, as well as one of the better goalkeepers in the WPIAL, the Panthers (13-4-2 last season) may be even better this season.
"We only lose three to four kids," said junior midfielder Jake Roberge, a 2012 Post-Gazette East Xtra All-Star selection who will be entering his third year as a starter. "That's almost unheard of in high school soccer. We're really hoping for big things this year. We should be even better in the second year in our system."
Last season may have been Montgomery's first season as Franklin Regional's head coach, but he did have some familiarity with some of his players. He has coached goalkeeper Chris Ralph, midfielders Ryan Watson and Danny Ferriero and forwards Timmy Jolayemi and Anthony Massetto for years with Century United Club.
"It's huge," Montgomery said. "You're able to build those relationships and we also have 75 percent of our team returning from last season, so we have more familiarity. It's all coming together. We seem to be clicking in camp right now."
The Panthers return juniors Roberge, Watson and Ferriero in the midfield, with Brent Velasquez, a 2012 East Xtra All-Star, the only graduated starter at the position.
Up front, juniors Jolayemi and Massetto and sophomore James Young all return. All three forwards saw extra time last season because Jake's brother, Mike, missed most of last season due to injuries. Mike Roberge is playing at Northwestern University this season.
"We didn't even play with our best player all season," Jake Roberge said. "To go as far as we did, if we had him, we could have made a run at things."
Although the team is experienced up front, the backline is a question mark. The Panthers must replace all four of their starters from a defense that pitched six shutouts and allowed one goal or fewer in 13 of the team's 19 games.
Montgomery said the Panthers have six guys who will see action this season at defense. Senior Jon Cavalier saw part-time action last season and will start at center back, while sophomore Andrew Mastovich has been the surprise of camp at outside back.
Whoever does start on defense will have the benefit of having Ralph behind them.
"Chris is extremely experienced," Montgomery said. "He's playing on one of the best club teams in the area and he gained a lot of experience winning a playoff game last season.
"His experience should help to erase a lot of the mistakes we might make back there."
If the backline proves stable, the Panthers believe they can make a deep run in the WPIAL Class AAA tournament.
Last season, after finishing second behind Kiski Area in the section and winning its first-round playoff game, Franklin Regional lost a close match to Canon-McMillan, 1-0.
The Big Macs went on to win the WPIAL title and that has inspired Roberge and his teammates this season, who said it's playoffs or bust.
" It's definitely a motivator," Roberge said. "It was a harsh loss.
"This year, the expectation is at least the playoffs. Anything less is a loss. We all expect to be there and want to be there this season."