North/East Xtra: Knoch starting out with a stern test -- Franklin Regional

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We are T-minus one day from the much anticipated season opening night of high school football.

For the next three months, student bodies will be packing their respective bleachers, cheering on their peers to beat their rivals. Whether it is Week One or Week Nine, the hype remains all the same.

Well, except for Friday night at Knoch High School when the Knights welcome the Panthers of Franklin Regional.

"I hate playing Knoch in the beginning of the season," Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. "It is always a battle and physical game. We are pretty much the same offense and defense. It is going to be a fun contest to watch."

Mike King, Knoch's head coach and athletic director, concurs that both teams better tighten their chin straps in this one.

"I see all of our games with Franklin Regional being physical," King said. "They are tough, hard-nosed kids. They always bring their 'A' game. It is going to be a physical battle. We have done this before playing them Week One and that is where having a veteran team helps you. They understand you have to play the best to be the best in Class AAA anyways."

The Panthers got the best of the Knights last year, 28-0, but both coaches know the score did not do justice to how well both teams played.

"In our game last year, they moved the ball better but we made big plays," Botta said. "They had a lot of juniors last year and are returning a lot. They are a lot like we were last year.

"I have four starters back on each side of the ball. I don't understand the preseason rankings. I expect this to be a closer game than it was last year."

"We moved the ball last year but we didn't capitalize in critical situations," King said. "You have to deliver against a quality team. That is a good lesson for these kids. You can't play well for two quarters and then give up the big plays."

Franklin Regional is coming off a year where it advanced to the WPIAL semifinals before being knocked out by eventual champion West Allegheny, 21-12.

The Panthers success last year and often in years prior laid in large part on their defense. They are returning four starters on that side of the ball that allowed 10.3 points per game a year ago, led by University of Maryland commit Brett Zanotto.

"My premise has been a strong defense since I got here," Botta said. "It has been a good format and we hope to continue it.

"Our seniors have leadership capabilities. Brett leads more by example and hopefully other kids will follow. He is reserved and not vocal, but I have seen a different side of him this week. He did what he had to do to get the line fired up to block for him.

"He had 157 tackles last year at middle linebacker. We are relying on him for leadership. We lost one conference game last year and it was when Brett wasn't involved early on. He is one of the best linebackers I have ever coached."

That is saying a lot from a coach who has been doing this for 21 years.

Zanotto will be receiving the ball from a different quarterback this year after the graduation of Charan Singh. Senior Andrew Brncic and junior Santino Birty will split duties until one gets a full grasp on the starter's role.

"Andrew Brncic wants the job," Botta said. "He has worked hard to get it. Santino Birty is right in his footsteps. It is not a clear-cut situation who our starter is.

"They are both going to get reps in game-like situations. We plan on playing both, but it is how the game plays out. We probably will start with Andrew but we will see how this week goes. It is how they respond to practice this week."

For Knoch, expectations are high this year with nearly everyone returning. The Knights have 19 of 22 starters returning from a team that went 4-5 last year.

"I think what we want to do is return to where we were in Class AAA," King said. "We want to be in competition for a conference championship. If we stay healthy, we can stay up there with all the teams in our section.

"Last year we had a little bit of inexperience. We didn't know what it was going to take to push in the third and fourth quarters to win a football game. Our kids this year understand that fully.

"They are anxious to prove what they can do and leave a mark on this program. It took us a while last year because we were inexperienced. The kids have to learn how to play at a high level, which this section demands."

Key pieces returning for the Knights this year are seniors Daniel Farinelli and Cody Milson. Farinelli was sixth in Class AAA last year in passing yards with 1,175.

"[Farinelli] has been working with high profile coaches in the offseason," King said. "He has done everything he can do to make sure this is a successful season. He is reading defenses really well. He slimmed down a little bit and he is one of the fastest kids on the team."

Milson was 13th in Class AAA with 854 yards.

"Cody understands how brutal it is to be a running back in our conference," King said. "He has really conditioned himself to be very physical. He can dish it out and he can take it, and you have to be able to take it."

King, who is in his 17th year as head coach, is looking for Friday to be another chapter in the long friendly rivalry between him and Botta.

"We have a lot of mutual respect over the years," he said. "We have been at it for a long time. It is a good friendly rivalry. We have had some great battles over the years and I think that this Friday night is going to be another one."

ABOUT THE GAME

-- Game: Franklin Regional at Knoch.

-- When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

-- Where: Knoch Knight Stadium.

-- Skinny: Both teams are expected to be contenders in the Class AAA Greater Allegheny Conference. Franklin Regional won handily last year, 28-0, but Knoch has 19 starters returning.


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