FRANKLIN, Mass. – Franklin entered the postseason with just two losses (both in double overtime) and with its highest-ever seed (No. 2). The Panthers rolled through a perfect league campaign, going 10-0 in the Hockomock, while compiling both the league’s best attack and its stingiest defense.
So, all the pressure was definitely on the Panthers when they opened up the state tournament at Pisini Stadium on Tuesday night against division rival Mansfield. The Hornets were playing with house money, having won the final three games of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs and having lost to Franklin by 20 goals a month ago.
When Jake DiSangro scored with just under six minutes left to go in the opening quarter, cutting the Franklin lead to 2-1, the Hornets bench exploded and there was a fleeting moment where an upset seemed possible.
But, the Panthers responded with two goals in 29 seconds and rattled off seven straight goals to close out the quarter with a 9-1 lead. Franklin never looked back, going up by 14 at halftime, and, despite Mansfield scoring the game’s final five goals, comfortably advancing to the second round with a 19-8 victory.
The combination of junior attackers Jake Davis and Ben Greco and sophomore Matt Lazzaro proved especially potent again for the Panthers on Tuesday. Greco and Lazzaro are cousins and Verrochi said they refer to Davis as “the third cousin.” That familiarity was on display as they combined for 16 of the team’s 19 goals and added 11 assists as well.
“They’ve been playing together since they were young kids,” Verrochi said of his attacking trio. “They just really respect one another and they just do a real nice job moving the ball. It’s just fun to watch when they’re on.”
Davis got things going just about a minute into the game with a rip from the left side under the bar. Ninety seconds later, Greco found Lazzaro cutting through the middle and he went behind-the-back to double the early lead. DiSangro answered four minutes later with Mansfield’s first, managing to beat Franklin goalie Will Davis with a shot while being knocked to the ground.
That goal seemed to spring Franklin to life.
Jacob Alexander, the newly-selected league MVP, won the ensuing face-off and quickly got the ball to Greco, who fed Lazzaro for a goal. Mansfield’s momentum lasted all of eight seconds. Twenty-one seconds after that Greco to Lazzaro made it 4-1.
Lazzaro (seven goals and three assists) hit a cutting Davis (seven goals and two assists) not once, but twice to add to the advantage. Greco (two goals and six assists) took one himself, squeezing past the Mansfield defense and beating goalie Joe Plath (11 saves) from a tight angle. Owen Kielty took a hit but still got a lot on a shot from distance to make it 8-1 and then Nitin Chaudhury wound up in traffic for a ninth just before the end of the quarter.
“We tried to slow them down,” said Mansfield coach Tim Frias. “We implemented a zone a little bit to slow down the high-powered offense but they’re good. They’re No. 2 for a reason.”
Despite Mansfield’s switch to a zone defense, Franklin figured out ways to manufacture space and the ball movement continued to open up scoring chances.
“The kids solved the zone pretty well,” said Verrochi. “They were ball watching and we were fortunate to get some good, open looks. Ben Greco, he’s been doing it all year, our fast breaks, our unsettled situations, the kids just move the ball. This is probably the best ball movement from any team we’ve had.”
The Hornets started the second man-down, but managed to end the Panthers scoring run. Connor Quirk beat two Panthers on the far side trying to clear after a timeout and then he raced all the way on goal before tucking it away.
Chaudhury found Davis with his hands free for a rocket into the corner to get the hosts going again. Davis added a side-arm effort off a turnover and then assisted on Lazzaro’s fourth. With just under five minutes left in the half, Patrick Morrison scooped a ground ball in his defensive third and raced forward on the break to find Greco alone in front for his second. Eleven seconds later, Greco to Lazzaro worked again to make it 14-2.
Lazzaro scored his sixth and Tim Kolb got his first to put the Panthers up by 14 heading into the break. Nico Holmes won the face-off to start the third and powered towards goal, flicking a pass to Brady Kessler for the goal to make it 16-3. Davis added two more and Lazzaro one to push the lead to 19-3, Franklin’s largest of the game.
The Hornets didn’t stop at that point and they pushed to win the final 16 minutes of the game. Aidan Sacco got it started with a goal with 3:57 left in the third and, after a Holmes face-off win, Mansfield got a goal from Brian Rockwell.
Mansfield (8-9) would shut out Franklin in the fourth. Holmes got a goal straight from the face-off to start the quarter, Sacco assisted on a goal by Thomas Norton, and Holmes (two goals and two assists) completed his four-point night with a rocket from long-range.
“That’s all you can ask out of a team is play with pride,” said Frias. “In the second half it was the little things that you hope you take away and can build on that. Hopefully we will.”
Franklin (17-2) advances to take on No. 7 seed Natick on Thursday night.