FRANKLIN — As first impressions go, this one was pretty good.
Cole Lakatos and his family moved to Franklin in March. His father, Scott, coaches defensive backs at Bryant, and the family has bounced around over the years, most recently from Towson, Md.
In Thursday night's season opener between Franklin and Milford, Lakatos gave his new teammates a big bounce of momentum just at the right time.
After a Milford touchdown in the third quarter cut Franklin's lead to 20-13, Lakatos subbed in on kickoff return for his first-ever appearance with the Panthers, as standout wide receiver Jack Nally had come off with cramps.
Milford squibbed it right to Lakatos, who broke a few tackles, then raced up the left sideline and housed a 73-yarder. It was one of many swing plays, and one of the most dramatic as No. 12 Franklin held on for a 34-27 win in the nonleague Hockomock crossover matchup.
"Not really (expecting that)," Lakatos said. "We had some guys cramping up. We had good depth on the team, so I just kind of hopped in there. Ball came my way, so took it to the end zone."
"Last year in the opener, we had guys step up," Franklin coach Eian Bain. "Guys are going to cramp in this game adding the four extra minutes with 12-minute quarters. We were prepared for almost all those situations. We were getting kind of thin there at the end and a little bit nervous, but they were in the same boat. In some respects, (Milford was) in better shape than us. That's the flat-out truth. We've got to clean that up.
"But it's nice when young guys step up. (Running back Mack) Gulla (who replaced Owen Palmieri for the same reason) is a sophomore, Lakatos is brand new. But he's a football dude, and football dude's can play."
There were a lot of different football dudes making plays for both teams. Some observations on the ones who made out the most.
— Franklin quarterback Thomas Gasbarro had an efficient night, as he completed 23-of-27 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. His lone mistake was an interception in the end zone by Milford's Max Martin on the first drive of the second half.
Gasbarro atoned for that with a 23-yard touchdown to Jake Davis on fourth-and-9 later in the third to give his team a 20-7 lead.
Franklin quarterback Thomas Gasbarro hits Jake Davis with a 23-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
Still, Gasbarro was mostly on point. Seven of his completions converted critical third or fourth downs, including a third-and-8 pickup to Matthew Lazarek on the final Panthers scoring drive. It gave his team a first at the Milford 28-yard line, and Gulla capped the drive with a 3-yard plunge to make it a 34-20 game with 2:29 to play.
Mack Gulla scores Franklin's final touchdown of the night in relief of starter Owen Palmieri.
"It's a little bit of both (having the confidence to make those plays and working on situational football in practice)," Gasbarro said. "We practice third-down periods every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. So we know what to do, and (Bain) always has the right play call for us, and we just execute."
"Tommy's just a grinder," Bain said. "I don't think I've seen a tougher performance out of a QB. Milford was real creative with their pressures and their scheme defensively. We were OK, but not very good at pass protection, which wasn't bad considering it was a brand new look that we saw, but Tommy stood in, but he was getting hit on some of those throws. Just a gritty, tough kid, and that's why he's been a defensive starter the last two years. He's just a ballplayer. I think we could put him at nose guard and he'd be good."
— The Panthers seem to have reloaded nicely at wide receiver.
Davis had a big night, as he caught eight passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Nally caught another 23-yard score and had some nice runs when used at running back. Ben Greco made five receptions for 63 yards.
Thomas Gasbarro hits Jack Nally with a 23-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
"(Gasbarro and Davis have) such a great connection. Jake's a terrific athlete," Bain said. "I think that shows in lacrosse (Davis is a UMass-Lowell commit in that sport) and in football. This is the first year we've been able to feature him at receiver. He's caught touchdowns for us the last two years in different roles for us."
— Milford quarterback Colby Pires matched Gasbarro throw for throw, completing 14-of-22 passes for 342 yards and three second-half touchdowns
"They've been working all summer," Milford coach Anthony Vizakis said. "(Pires has) got those guys in the morning working, then they're doing extra stuff after practice. So it really didn't surprise me. I think we're only going to get better from here."
After the Gasbarro-to-Davis touchdown in the third, Pires quickly struck back with a 56-yarder to Dan Farrell, who caught the ball over the middle past midfield and just outraced the secondary to the end zone.
Following the Lakatos kick return, Pires hit Carter Scudo (five receptions, 152 yards, TD) on a gorgeous, 26-yard touch pass with 10:27 to play to pull his team back within one score at 27-20.
Milford quarterback Colby Pires finds Carter Scudo for a touchdown.
Pires also engineered a two-play, 80-yard drive late in the fourth. The senior signal-caller first found Scudo again for a 58-yard screen, then Matt Varteresian on a wheel route for a 25-yard score with 2:03 to play to help account for the final margin.
Pires hits Matt Varteresian on a wheel route for a Milford touchdown.
It was a strong performance in defeat by the Scarlet Hawks, who never led but kept up with Franklin every time it looked like the Panthers would pull away.
"Our kids don't quit. They don't quit," Vizakis said. "They play to the end. We're training them to play 48 minutes of football now and they played every single play. So I'm very proud of how they played."
— Scudo's impact was immediate, and the Scarlet Hawks plan on using the junior a lot this year.
"Yeah, he's electric," Vizakis said. "He's got the speed. He's got the hands. He's athletic. We're really excited to see what he's going to do."
— Defensively, even though there were not a ton of stops made, Milford's linebackers played well, particularly Luke Rosa — who also had 87 yards rushing and a touchdown from his running back spot — and CJ Cerella.
"I think CJ is our emotional leader on and off the field," Vizakis said. "He's the heart and soul of our defense. He's the glue that kind of makes everything work. Senior captain, you can't really ask more out of anyone like that."
— As for the new Federation rules, they had mixed responses from the two coaches.
Vizakis did not comment when asked, but Bain felt for a first time out, things went well.
"Rules were fine. There were times I was asking questions. Not being disrespectful, just for example, ball's kicked in the end zone (on a kickoff), is it at the 20 or 25? Stuff like that," said Bain, and the answer to that one is the 20. "Little things, nothing wild and crazy. It's not going to affect 95 percent of the game. It's just that one-off chance.
"I mean, (the Scarlet Hawks) kicked the PAT (in the fourth quarter). We went offsides. We're jogging off the field, thinking (the kick stands as good). No, you have to kick it again because it's an automatic dead ball. So, little things like that. But, all in all, rules weren't really a big problem tonight, just two teams battled it out and fought really hard."