For the second year in a row, Mars Area and Franklin Regional open the season against one another in a game that ultimately could decide the Greater Allegheny Conference championship.
But unlike last season, when both teams returned the majority of their starters, players who took on lesser roles a year ago will dominate the scenery, making this an even more challenging test for these WPIAL Class AAA foes when they square off Friday at the Mars Athletic Complex.
"It's an awfully difficult task to play against them in game one, but we've got to play them at some point in time," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said.
Franklin Regional brings back three starters on offense and two on defense. Two of the offensive starters, however, are playing different positions.
Mars returns four starters on both sides of the ball.
"For us, it's a good way to evaluate what kind of team we have," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said.
Many have tabbed Mars as the favorite to win the conference title. The defending champions went 7-1 in conference play last season, placing them in front of Franklin Regional, Hampton and Knoch, all of which finished tied for second at 6-2.
Like Franklin Regional, the Planets are inexperienced on the lines, but they have back three starters in the offensive backfield -- senior quarterback Owen Nearhoof, junior fullback Josh Schultheis and senior wing back Jason Lozzi.
Schultheis was a relative unknown heading into last season but used a 163-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 21-17 triumph at Franklin Regional to springboard himself to a terrific season. He scored the winning touchdown on a fourth-and-1 from the 2 with 5:44 left in the game.
"We didn't know who he was last year," Botta said. "He came into [the game] as a sophomore. We kept saying, 'Who was that?' We didn't expect that. He had a great game. He's a powerful runner."
Schultheis (6 feet 1, 205 pounds) rushed for 1,687 yards and 27 touchdowns, ranking him second in Class AAA in both categories.
The Planets also have Lozzi, who has rushed for 1,050 yards and 14 touchdowns during the last two seasons.
Botta said that the wing-T offense Mars employs is difficult to prepare for and play against, primarily because of the precision at which the Planets run it, as well as the fact that very few teams still use it.
Franklin Regional's star running back, Dane Brown, graduated. Brown rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his career, including 177 and a touchdown against Mars last season.
Filling Brown's role will be senior Paul Emanuele and junior Brett Zanotto. Emanuele was second on the team in rushing with 339 yards and seven touchdowns. Zanotto missed the second half of the season with a broken ankle.
"Brett is very physical. He runs hard and runs low," Botta said. "Paul is very quick. He's explosive and elusive."
The teams vary greatly at the quarterback position.
Mars has Nearhoof, a three-year starter who is more of a game manager than a game changer. He passed for 738 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Heinauer said Nearhoof looked sharp in a scrimmage against Pine-Richland and hinted that Nearhoof's role as a passer could expand.
Meanwhile, Franklin Regional will turn to senior Charan Singh to replace Nico Lodovico as the team's signal caller. Singh was one of Franklin Regional's top offensive players last season, albeit at wide receiver.
He led the Panthers with 28 catches for 476 yards. Singh is an excellent athlete and will look to make plays through the air and on the ground.
"The difference [from last season] is that [Botta] moved his best athlete to quarterback," Heinauer said. "He can really throw the ball. He's a kid whom we have to try to shut down."
Mars and Franklin Regional both advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals last season. They've asserted themselves as two of the top programs in Class AAA. Heinauer has led Mars to 11 playoff appearances in 12 years. Franklin Regional has reached the playoffs nine years in a row.
Botta said the winner of this game will be in the driver's seat in the race for the conference title, and while Heinauer agreed, he knows it really counts as just one game.
"You win this game, you're in great shape," Heinauer said. "You lose this game, it's not the end of your season."hsfootball