Two teams with brand new defenses went at each other on opening night Aug. 21 at Grove Field at Sussex Hamilton High School, and it was Franklin that emerged as the survivor, needing a resounding rally to pull it off.
The visiting Sabers fell behind, 21-0, but rallied for a 44-28 win over the Chargers on Aug. 21 at Hamilton's Stan Grove Field.
The game, covered by local television with the United States Marines and the United State Army on hand, looked like it was headed in a completely different direction early.
Hamilton got a touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage by senior running back Tyler Davis, covering 67 yards. Senior Isaiah Webb had a 19-yard touchdown run before Franklin, a team in the WIAA Division 1 state championship fight last year, nearly self-destructed. The Sabers gave up a 9-yard touchdown run to Webb after a snap from center ended up over the head of junior punter Nathan Gennrich just south of the game's first TV timeout.
At that point, Franklin collectively took a deep breath, knowing there was a lot more football to be played.
"Our defense had the deer-in-the-headlights feeling early in the game," coach Louis Brown said. "We have 10 new starters on defense. Plus Sussex (Hamilton) has some really great athletes on offense. When they get in the clear, they're gone, so it took us time tonight. Once the confidence came, I think they realized, 'Hey, I can do this.'"
That confidence started to show up in the second quarter, when Franklin tightened up on Hamilton senior quarterback Michael Barnes. Running lanes were closed off for Webb and Davis, and Barnes was forced to make quick decisions.
Junior Gavin Boeck scored on a 2-yard run with 9:33 remaining in the half. Senior Josh Frank, the heir to the Franklin quarterback throne with All-State slinger Sean McGuire graduated, hooked up with Boeck on a screen pass that covered 29 yards, slicing the Chargers' advantage to 21-14 with 3:17 to play.
Momentum remained for Franklin, which scored the next three times in the third quarter. Frank found junior wide receiver Gage Kelch for an 8-yard touchdown. After Gennrich made a 30-yard field goal, Frank found senior Giovanni Flores, once again on a screen play, putting the Sabers ahead, 31-21.
"We came out the way we wanted to, but at the end of the day, you can't look at one particular play," Hamilton coach John Damato said. "It was just a magnitude of blunders. Tonight, we were just hanging on, I felt. We've got to do a better job getting these kids focused. It was a lack of preparation on my behalf."
Webb scored on a 5-yard run with 9:29 to play in the fourth quarter, cutting the Franklin lead to three points, 31-28. Frank threw another touchdown pass to Flores at the 6:51 mark.
Hamilton's all-but-last-chance fell apart when junior Drew Reinick leveled Barnes, and senior Brian Myers picked up the fumble en route to a end zone.
"These Franklin kids are resilient," Brown said. "I've been here 22 years, and I've seen we've got tough kids. It was kind of like a boxing match, and Sussex took it to us the first three rounds."
Webb led Hamilton with 138 yards rushing. Davis had 123 yards on the ground.
Flores caught 9 passes for 122 yards. Frank was 19 for 29 for 260 yards passing.
Kyle Cortez, a senior, had nine solo tackles to lead the Sabers. Junior Kobe Knaak had seven solo tackles for the winners.
Hamilton's defense was led by senior Will Watkins with six solo tackles. Junior Sam Herriges had five solo tackles.
"It was the first game," Damato said. "Like I told the boys once we look at the tape, we're going to learn from it and get better."
The Sabers will now dedicate their new field on Friday, Aug. 29 when they host area rival and fellow 2013 state finalist Greendale in a 7 p.m. tilt (see separate preview).
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