After losing 19 of 22 starters from last year's team, excuse Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta if he thought this would be a rebuilding year.
"It is amazing on where we are, based on where we started," Botta said. "I am very, very proud of them. A lot of seniors this year got very little playing time last year in games or on the practice squad. We lost our whole offensive line. We lost almost everybody."
So then finishing in the middle of the pack with a young team in the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference would seem acceptable. But then again, there are teams that exceed all expectations and that is the route the Panthers are currently on. The Panthers are 10-1, shared the Greater Allegheny Conference title with Mars Area and are one of four remaining teams battling it out this Friday in the semifinals for the right to play next week at Heinz Field.
"They have persevered and believe they are on a mission and trying to accept each week as it comes," Botta said.
The Panthers offense is one of the best in their classification, scoring 354 points (32.2 points per game). Not bad considering all five members blocking for the talented group of running backs and senior quarterback Charan Singh are all new, including three sophomores Jake Pickup, Charlie Mazon and Jake Lauer, who also serves as the tight end.
The Panthers have been a fixture in the Class AAA playoffs for the past decade, but ever since winning their WPIAL championship in 2005, the team has failed to get back to Heinz Field. But there is one game that sticks out in Botta's mind that has the Panthers itching to get back to the championship game.
Two years ago Franklin Regional lost, 9-7, in the WPIAL semifinals to conference rival Knoch, creating a sour taste that is still left in his mouth and the seniors who were then sophomores.
"That loss motivated this team and we are trying to push through and take it to the next level. We have to leave everything on the field."
That's exactly what the Panthers did in last week's quarterfinal showdown against West Mifflin. The Panthers survived the 14-12 thriller, thanks in large part to their defense. On the Panthers' second defensive series of the game, Franklin Regional withstood a goal-line thrust against the Titans and WPIAL leading rusher Jimmy Wheeler.
"It set the tone for the game," Botta said. "It was instrumental. It gave our kids a boost that we can be a good football team, too."
It was only fitting that the defense would score the eventual go-ahead touchdown. A big part of the defensive effort in the game and all season has been the play of linebacker Brett Zanotto.
"Brett is a player," Botta said. " I think he needs like five tackles to set the all-time tackles record at the school. And he is only a junior. Every coach dreams of having a player like him."
It isn't just on defense that Zanotto's big body pays dividends for the Panthers, He serves as one of the many running backs the Panthers use and has had recent success operating out of the wildcat formation.
In order for this group of Panther players to make their first trip to Heinz Field, they are going to have to go through the best of the best. The No. 4-seeded Panthers will take on top-seeded West Allegheny Friday at North Allegheny High School.
"They are impressive up front," Botta said. "We are a spread team. We have a lot of different variations through our offense. You have to be able to move the ball on them and sustain drives. We can't just settle for field goals."
Another key aspect to the game is limiting the miscues, something they didn't do last week in their win. The Panthers committed seven penalties for 75 yards against the Titans.
"We need to execute," Botta said. "Our team takes the football field feeling confident winning the game. Viewing yourself as an underdog shows that you are diminishing yourself as a football team. You need to have confidence."
Although Botta may not have had the confidence that he would be controlling the Franklin Regional sideline on Nov. 15 in the semifinals, there is no question he will be ready for the challenge.
"We put ourselves in a bracket and position where we can compete. Winning the [conference championship] told the kids that we earned and deserved this."