Coaches and players alike often refer to the next contest on their schedule as the most important game of the season. For the Greater Latrobe football team, that mantra looks to be accurate.

Coming off a lopsided win against Connellsville Area, the Wildcats await a showdown with Franklin Regional that will likely determine a berth in the WPIAL playoffs.

“We know the importance of this football game – in terms of playing in November, in terms of where you finish (in the conference), and in terms of the reality that our seniors’ opportunities are limited,” explained Greater Latrobe head coach Jason Marucco. “We don’t shy away from it. This is a big football game Friday night, and we’re excited about it.”

Of the six teams in the Class 5A Big East Conference, the Wildcats and Panthers are each 1-1, joining Gateway and Woodland Hills in the middle of the pack. Penn-Trafford leads the conference at 2-0, while Connellsville Area is 0-2.

The winner of Friday’s tilt at Greater Latrobe’s Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m. will clearly have the inside track for one of the four playoff spots.

Fortunately for Greater Latrobe, the Wildcats enter their crucial matchup with momentum, as they claimed a decisive 55-13 win at home against Connellsville Area last week. That victory came after consecutive lopsided losses against South Fayette and Gateway.

“Good overall performance, and really liked the way we started,” noted Marucco, whose team held a 15-0 lead after the first quarter and 28-7 at the half.

Greater Latrobe was bolstered by the return of two key players – quarterback Bobby Fetter and running back Drake Clayton. Fetter had missed four games because of injury, while Clayton was a noticeable absence from the lineup the previous week against the Gators.

Clayton rushed for 240 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts, and he drew the praise of his coach for his tough runs.

“I thought at the point of attack there was a lot there for Drake to get through, but then when first contact came, he kept his feet moving, and I don’t know that he went down on first contact all night,” Marucco detailed.

Fetter, meanwhile, was 6-of-9 passing for 70 yards and a score, but did toss a pair of interceptions. He participated in all of the practices leading up to the game last week, but there’s still room for improvement for the senior signal-caller as he gets back into a rhythm.

“Our timing and things like that, we certainly need to clean up,” said Marucco.

In addition to the interceptions, the Wildcats lost three fumbles and committed 10 penalties. While those blunders did not prove costly against the Falcons, the Wildcats realize they must be sharper over the final three weeks in order to give themselves a chance.

“It was good to get back in the win column after the prior two weeks, but at the same time, there were a lot of things that we need to clean up,” Marucco revealed. “If there was a negative coming out of Friday night, it was certainly the turnovers. That is a focal point and will continue to be a focal point for us to be successful.”

With Fetter’s return to the lineup, Corey Boerio shifted back to his natural position of tight end, and he caught a pair of passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. Additionally, Kyle Brewer continued to make an impact in a variety of ways, as he rushed seven times for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also added a team-leading 55 yards receiving and another score.

Defensively, the Wildcats had a strong showing, as they limited the Falcons to just 139 yards, including one yard rushing, while also forcing a pair of turnovers.

“Our pursuit to the football was really good – we had multiple guys there. I thought we tackled very well,” Marucco stated. “We wanted to try to make them one dimensional, and we achieved that. We felt like if we could stop the run, that would put us in a good position to win the game,” he added.

Limiting the Franklin Regional offense should be a tougher task, however, as the Panthers average more than 23 points per game.

Franklin Regional, which is coming off a 37-21 setback at home against Woodland Hills, boasts a few players who have a penchant for the big play.

Caden Smith, who also excels at basketball and baseball, is a 6-foot-4 senior who has lined up at receiver, running back, and was a “wildcat” quarterback. He has caught 25 passes for 260 yards, rushed 17 times for 140 yards, and completed 5-of-9 passes for 274 yards. In total, Smith has produced eight touchdowns.

“There’s no doubt the big play capability goes through him,” Marucco said of Smith. “They’re making a conscious effort to try to get him the football.”

Sophomore receiver Ayden Hudock has also produced a bevy of splash plays this season, however, as he has averaged more than 45 yards on his six receptions, and has multiple kick return scores.

As a result, stopping the big play will be a priority for the Wildcats.

“We still need to be better and more consistent with that, but I think any time in high school you do that, you give yourself a better chance to win the football game,” Marucco noted. “In all three phases of the game, they have strived to get and live off of the big play.”

While legendary head coach Greg Botta retired after nearly 30 years at the helm of the Panthers, Botta’s offensive coordinator Lance Getsy, who also previously guided Charleroi Area, is in his first year overseeing Franklin Regional.

“We did see it last year,” Marucco said of the Panthers’ offense. “A lot of the same sets, just the different personnel and where they’re positioning those guys.”

With a road game at Woodland Hills and the regular-season finale against Penn-Trafford looming, the Wildcats know that the stretch run towards their playoff aspirations begin this week. With high stakes on the line, the homecoming game at Memorial Stadium should have a special atmosphere.

“These are the reasons you play high-school football and you coach high-school football,” Marucco said.

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