Mars falls back to earth in loss to Franklin Regional

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In a regular season that includes eight more games over the course of two months, it's almost impossible to assess the importance of a single win.

But beyond the search for any sweeping conclusions, Franklin Regional at least put itself in an enviable position to begin the 2013 season.

Buoyed by a strong defense and multi-faceted rushing attack that had its way for much of the game, the Panthers went on the road Friday night to defeat defending conference champion Mars, 20-13, in a matchup of the two teams expected to contend for the WPIAL Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference championship.

"It's going to be a tough conference, so for us to come in here and win this first one, just like Mars did last year, it puts us in the driver's seat," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "But there's still a long way to go."

Forced to replace their top two offensive weapons from last season -- quarterback Nico Lodovico and running back Dane Brown -- Franklin Regional was largely a mystery entering the season.

The Panthers' first drive only added to that element of surprise.

Botta's offensive coordinator had suggested the possibility of starting with a wildcat scheme that alternated several quarterbacks as a way to keep the Planets off guard.

Sure enough, it worked. Rotating three players under center, Franklin Regional marched up the field on its first possession with relative ease, and Brett Zanotto capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.

Mars responded quickly on its next drive, getting a 14-yard touchdown run from Jason Lozzi to bring the Planets within a point.

Though the Panthers were plagued by offensive miscues throughout the game -- three touchdowns were called back because of penalties -- their defense made the decisive play in the second quarter.

Defensive back Colin Jonov intercepted a pass by Owen Nearhoof and cut across the length of the field for a touchdown that extended the lead to 14-6 going into halftime.

In a season opener played in unrelenting humidity, one that saw players go down with cramps seemingly every other play, Franklin Regional saw a chance to strike with the lead and the ball to open the second half.

The Panthers methodically moved up the field, ending with Zanotto's second rushing touchdown to push their lead to 20-6.

In all, the drive went 73 yards in 14 plays while, perhaps most important, taking about seven minutes off the clock.

But just when the game looked all but decided, the Mars offense came alive.

Nearhoof completed his first pass of the second half late in the fourth quarter, a lob to Travis Ganter that went for 79 yards.

A few plays later, the duo connected again, this time on a 10-yard touchdown that made the score 20-13 with just less than three minutes remaining.

After the Panthers were forced to punt, the Planets got the ball on their 21 with 1:12 left but were unable to advance past midfield.

That was the final blow for an offense that was never able to find its rhythm until it was too late.

"Good teams take advantage and seize the moment when you have the opportunity," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. "We did not do that tonight."


Craig Meyer: and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.


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