High School Basketball Season Preview: Franklin Regional

The Panthers' boys look to replace a trio of starters while the girls return a swath of key players

Thu Nov 24, 2022 - 8:56AM

Sean Meyers Sean Meyers
Sarah Penrod and Jake Kimmich are among the top returners for Franklin Regional this season. (Photos by www.westernpasports.com)Sarah Penrod and Jake Kimmich are among the top returners for Franklin Regional this season. (Photos by www.westernpasports.com)

Last Updated: Thu Nov 24, 2022 - 11:58AM

Franklin Regional Panthers Boys

Head Coach: Jesse Reed – 2nd season

Conference: Class 5A Section 3

Last Season: 7-14 overall record – missed WPIAL playoffs

Key Losses: Caden Smith, Jordan Suvak, Nick Neuschwander

Key Returners: Cam Rowell, Fin Hutchison, Max Leven, Jake Kimmich, Cooper Rankin

Promising Newcomers: Connor Crossey, Jalen Russell, Colin Masten, Zach Bluemling

Jesse Reed’s first season at the helm of Franklin Regional basketball was an up-and-down campaign. The Panthers started slowly, losing seven of their first eight contests. A midseason surge placed FR in the thick of the playoff conversation in Class 5A Section 3, but a three-game skid to conclude the year resulted in the Panthers narrowly missing the postseason.

While the Panthers will be tasked with replacing one of the top players in recent memory, the team returns a strong group that appears capable of taking a step forward in Reed’s second year on the sidelines.

The void left by the graduation of three starters will be notable, however. Caden Smith, a three-sport standout who is now playing football at the University of Pittsburgh, averaged 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists a year ago. Likewise, Jordan Suvak, who continued his athletic career on the diamond at John Carroll, contributed averages of 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds last season, while Nick Neuschwander was a steady presence in the lineup.

With Smith departed, junior Cam Rowell is likely to take over as the top option offensively. Last campaign, Rowell averaged 12.2 points, 5.1 boards, and 2.3 assists. Classmate Fin Hutchinson, a guard, provided 7.8 points per game in 2021-22. Massive forward Max Leven is back for his senior campaign after posting averages of 4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds, while senior Jake Kimmich, a Grove City soccer commit, provided 3.7 points, 2.7 boards, and 2.9 assists last season. Junior guard Cooper Rankin is another returning player who received valuable playing time a year ago.

A quartet of guards also are in the mix for FR, as senior Jalen Russell, juniors Colin Masten and Zach Bluemling, and sophomore Connor Crossey aim to crack the rotation.

While the Panthers remain in Section 3, reigning champion Penn Hills and Woodland Hills, another playoff participant, have moved out, while Penn-Trafford has dropped down from 6A for the new cycle. Gateway, which finished second behind the Indians a year ago, appears to be the favorite, while Kiski Area also qualified for postseason play in 2021-22. The Warriors, McKeesport Area, and Greater Latrobe round out the section.

As for the team’s goals, Reed simply stated that he wants his crew to compete for the section title and a spot in the WPIAL playoffs.

Reed, who previously served as an assistant coach at Saint Vincent College, has a pair of recent Bearcats players on his coaching staff, as Plum graduate Austin Dedert has joined former Kiski Area standout Mike Simmons on the bench.

The Panthers open the season against Connellsville Area in the Hempfield Area Tournament.

Franklin Regional Panthers Girls

Head Coach: Bernie Pucka – 2nd season

Conference: Class 5A Section 1

Last Season: 6-15 overall record – missed playoffs

Key Losses: None

Key Returners: Avery Musto, Sarah Penrod, Brooke Schirmer, Sophia Yaniga, Sarah Holt, Angelina Brush, Gabby Keough, Olivia Orndoff, Toryn Fulton

Promising Newcomers: None

The Franklin Regional girls struggled a year ago, winning just two games in section play. Those struggles were understandable, though, considering that the Panthers had no seniors on the roster.

This year, the Panthers could reap the benefits of last year’s growing pains, as Franklin Regional returns an experienced group that should improve in Bernie Pucka’s second year at the helm.

While FR only notched a pair of section victories against last-place Penn Hills last season, the Panthers played competitively in many of their setbacks, including single-digit defeats against Greensburg Salem, Gateway, Hempfield Area, and Greensburg Central Catholic.

That could prove invaluable to the group of returners that includes nine players who saw regular minutes in the rotation. Senior Sarah Penrod, a Pitt-Greensburg commit, paced FR with 8.7 points per game last year. Classmate Brooke Schirmer, who has pledged to Penn State Behrend, posted a scoring average of 6.1 points in 2021-22. Other key returners include seniors Avery Musto and Sophia Yaniga, juniors Angelina Brush, Gabby Keough, and Olivia Orndoff, and sophomore Toryn Fulton. Among that group, Keough and Fulton, both forwards, will provide an interior presence in an otherwise guard-oriented lineup.

Pucka did not establish objectives based on wins and losses, but rather, he’s encouraging his players to focus on the present. With his team wearing shooting shirts that say “aim small, miss small”, Pucka has stressed playing one game, one half, one quarter, one minute, one play, and one breath at a time.

“Knowing that every night is going to be a battle, we're focusing on winning the smallest of details,” Pucka noted. “With this approach, we're hoping to compete nightly, and ultimately, earn a spot in the 5A WPIAL playoffs.”

While the Panthers remain in the same classification, they have shifted from Section 4 to Section 1. While Woodland Hills, Gateway, and Penn Hills remain as section foes, the Panthers will also compete with Indiana Area, Kiski Area, and Plum, where Pucka previously served as a head coach.

The Little Indians, who captured the section crown last year, appear to be the favorites, while the Wolverines also qualified for postseason play a year ago.

“We believe that we can compete with anyone on any given night. I believe that every coach in our section is preaching the same thing,” Pucka revealed. “It's going to be a grind, for sure.”