PITTSBURGH — In a match played every bit as hard as both coaches anticipated, one of last year’s sectional champions received a gentle reminder of which team is still the one to beat in its new classification.
Two early assists from set pieces and a critical insurance goal by Region II All-American Anthony DiFalco helped Franklin Regional (4-0, 4-0) put down Plum 4-1 before a COVID-capacity crowd at Plum High School Stadium Monday night.
The carefully counted and socially distanced lot of 250, per Allegheny County Health Department ordinance, saw the two-time WPIAL Boys Class 3A champs defeat their “new” Section 4 rivals in the first meeting between the familiar eastern suburbanites since the Mustangs (2-1, 2-1) migrated from Class 4A in the off-season.
After combining for over 40 wins, two unblemished district campaigns and a pair of PIAA semifinal berths over the past two years, Franklin Regional has opened its latest title defense with 35 goals in its first four outings, and, anchored by senior goalkeeper Gianni Diacopoulos, has conceded just twice.
Fleet-footed forward and co-captain AJ Koma, part of Plum’s four-man leadership group in 2020, got those spectators into the game, and got the Panthers on their heels, with a number of dangerous runs down the left side in the early going. Franklin Regional’s back line, featuring seniors Cole Kaforey, Luke Kimmich and Jake Sciorilli, worked with an equally veteran midfield to nullify whatever chances the Mustangs could create.
They faced an uphill climb once the visitors found their own legs. A determined DiFalco worked for an indirect free kick from the near sideline, roughly 30 yards out, which he floated into traffic in front of the Plum goal. Sophomore Colton Hudson followed the bounding ball and flicked it off his right foot, past Gabe Kuhn, for a 1-0 Franklin Regional lead in the 23rd minute.
It was a tough pill to swallow for Plum, which had begun 2020 with back-to-back clean sheets against Penn Hills and at Woodland Hills.
The Mustangs tried to clog the middle of the field as possible, but DiFalco continued to attack the Plum defense, earning a direct free kick in the 29th. The junior striker was equally opportunistic from the right edge of the 18-yard box, connecting with senior Blake Cooper at the far side of goal, and Cooper’s header doubled the advantage ahead of halftime.
“He’s great at putting it where it’s dangerous, and that’s what happened,” Franklin Regional head coach Rand Hudson said, of DiFalco’s dimes, to PSN’s John Krysinsky. “Those are almost like smash-and-grabs, but we’ll take it. We needed that to give us a lift.”
Despite the tendency of the Panthers to make a 2-nil scoreline appear mountainous, the Mustangs had an antidote in the form of an early second-half strike. Noted offensive threat Darius “DD” Flowers needed only 62 seconds to find enough space on the left to tuck the ball inside the far right post behind Diacopoulos.
The keeper later made a daring, sliding save at the top of his box to keep Plum from leveling, and Franklin Regional allowed little else in the way of quality chances to a Mustangs side that had scored 16 times in the first two games of the year.
“We played with them. We just couldn’t finish,” Plum head coach Raf Kolankowski lamented to Krysinsky afterward.
Meanwhile, DiFalco, a 30-goal scorer last season, began using his All-PIAA skillset to take over. With his back to a defender, he dribbled around the left side of the box and tucked a turnaround shot under the bar to restore the two-goal cushion in the 57th minute.
“They had control of the game early, almost from the first kick, which we kind of flubbed. They went right at us, and that goal right after halftime gave them a lift, for sure,” said Hudson. “That always gives you an energy boost, for those next 10-15 minutes. That next goal–the one we picked up from Anthony–was going to be huge. It was a deflator for them, and one that really lifted us.”
As DiFalco and his fancy footwork continued to keep Kuhn and the Mustangs busy, another underclassman had enough room to get into the act. Sophomore midfielder Jacob Kimmich, on the 64-minute mark, cemented the season-opening fourth straight victory by Franklin Regional from close range, with his tight-angle chip over the head of Kuhn and into the upper-left corner of the net.
The Panthers continue their truncated 2020 season Tuesday night at Penn Hills, with another sectional contest set for 7:30 p.m. EDT.
While they try to extend their winning streak, the Mustangs will try to begin a new one on Tuesday, when they host section rival West Mifflin for another 7:15 p.m. EDT kickoff.
The teams are slated to meet again at Franklin Regional High School next Monday at 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Jared Todhunter Photo Gallery – Franklin Regional vs Plum 9/21/2020