East Xtra: Franklin Regional battles to stay in contention

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With less than two weeks remaining in the high school basketball season, the race for the playoffs are starting to heat up.

Many of the top tier teams have already clinched a spot but for them the more important issue is what seed they will receive. But there are also teams fighting desperately to fill the final playoff spot given to each section.

Out of the eight teams competing in Class AAAA Section 2, six are still alive for a postseason berth.

Plum (15-2, 9-2) and Gateway (12-7, 8-3) have clinched playoff berths but are locked in a battle for the section title. That leaves a four-team battle for the final two playoff spots. One of those teams looking to get back to the postseason after a two-year hiatus is Franklin Regional.

The Panthers are (11-6, 7-4) and are neck-and-neck with Central Catholic (10-8, 7-4) and Fox Chapel (14-4, 7-4) for third place. Still in the picture is McKeesport (8-9, 4-6), which also has a playoff pulse.

Even with the playoff talk surrounding the Panthers, it hasn't been hard for Panthers coach Brad Midgley to keep his veteran squad focused.

"It hasn't been hard because they know they control their own destiny," Midgley said. "If they win games, they are fine. If it comes down to the last week and we need to win out and need help, then it might be something to think about. But as of right now, we are in a good position."

The Panthers have a rotation of seven seniors and two younger underclassmen. Leading the senior-dominated team all season has been Matt Renzi, a 5-foot-10 senior guard. Renzi has consistently been the Panthers' leading scorer, including a 30-point effort in their 66-58 win against Central Catholic.

"He is capable of having very big nights," Midgley said. "He is a guy who runs our offense and keeps us steady."

Also contributing down low for the Panthers is one of their underclassmen, sophomore Todd Summers, a 6-4 forward.

"We are a pretty deep team," Midgley said. "We have guys who can put a lot of points on the board and it helps us defensively as well."

When it comes down to their section, the Panthers have done one thing that helps a team make the playoffs, defend their home court. Franklin Regional is (4-1) at home in section games, including wins against Central Catholic and Fox Chapel. Unfortunately for them, they split their season series against those teams, losing to both of them on the road.

"We won our home games and lost our away games against them," Midgley said. "We are trying not to worry too much about that and just win basketball games so we don't have to worry about tiebreakers when it comes down to it."

The Panthers registered perhaps their biggest win of the season Tuesday, a 62-53 conquest of Gateway. They can take a major step toward clinching a playoff berth Friday with a section victory at McKeesport.

"Obviously, they are all big at this point," Midgley said. "They are playing pretty well right now. If [McKeesport] wants a shot to make the playoffs, they are going to have to win games. Playing at their place is a tough environment."

If Midgley and the Panthers want to avoid any thoughts of a tiebreaker, winning three of the last four section games may be the magic number.

"I think if we can get to nine section wins then we don't have to worry about what other teams are doing," Midgley said. I think 9-5 would be pretty hard to be on the outside looking in. If we can get three in the last two weeks, it should guarantee us a spot."

As for the seniors, they want to make sure they end their high school careers in fine fashion, which would include playing well into February.

"We have a group that is senior heavy," Midgley said. "We had an opportunity late and didn't take advantage of some games last year. We had a goal to make sure they get in to make some noise.

"They have always been focused, which is good. It makes it easier to go out and execute."

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