Knights set to take on Freeport in PIAA playoffs

Connor Rakow

Franklin's baseball team will make its return to the PIAA Class 3A playoffs today against Freeport in a first-round matchup at Slippery Rock University's Jack Critchfield Park. The game is scheduled to start at 4 p.m.

Coach Brian Schmidt's Knights will be bringing a 21-1 record, including a 20-game winning streak, into today's matchup. They captured the Region 3 crown after finishing the regular season at 18-1 with the only loss coming against Rocky Grove (4-2) way back on April 3.

Franklin advanced to the state tournament by capturing the District 10 title with a 12-2, six-inning victory over Hickory in the championship game on Monday, May 27. The Knights reached the title game by defeating Greenville (9-2) in the quarterfinals and Titusville (4-1) in the semifinals.

The Knights played well in all facets of the game against the Hornets and will be looking to carry that momentum into today's matchup with the Yellowjackets, the No. 3 seed out of District 7.

The Yellowjackets earned the three seed after recording a 1-0 victory over Keystone Oaks on Wednesday as staff ace Jarrett Heilman, a junior right-hander, tossed a complete-game, three-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and only one walk.

"They have a very good pitcher, and he's got a lot of strikeouts and he doesn't walk many batters," Schmidt said of Heilman. "I think he's walked like six batters in a ton of innings, so he's pretty efficient. He hits his spots and he mixes up his speeds well."

Freeport managed only three hits in the win over Keystone Oaks as junior Bradyn Clark singled to drive in junior Brayden King for the game's only run in the second inning while juniors Garrett Ben doubled and Austin Kepes singled.

"Freeport puts the ball in play and they do what they have to do to score runs, and they are also sound on defense," Schmidt said.

Franklin appears to be a little more potent on offense as the Knights are batting .334 as a team with exactly 200 hits in 599 official at-bats. They've scored 191 runs in their 22 games while cracking 45 doubles, three triples and eight home runs.

The Knights' lineup is expected to feature seniors Zach Taylor in left field, Tyus Wood at second base and Connor Rakow at shortstop, junior Austin Rhoads at first base, senior Kaden Keely in center field, juniors Ian Haynes on the mound, Marc Knox as the designated hitter and Kolton Banfi at third base. Freshman Carson Wible rounds out the batting order in right field while fellow freshman Cole Harmon sits behind the plate.

Rakow leads the offense with a .446 batting average as he's totaled 29 hits, 31 runs scored, 23 RBIs, nine doubles, two triples and three home runs to go with a team-leading eight stolen bases on the season. Ian Haynes is next with a .426 average, 29 hits, 15 runs scored, 29 RBIs and four doubles while senior centerfielder Kaden Keely sports a .418 average with 28 hits, 23 runs scored, 29 RBIs, 11 doubles, one triple and two home runs. Rhoads is also hitting above .400 at a .412 clip with 21 hits, 33 runs scored, 20 RBIs, six doubles and two home runs.

Wible has had a breakout freshman campaign for the Knights as he's hitting .391 with 25 hits, 17 runs scored, 18 RBIs, seven doubles and one home run while Taylor is dangerous in the leadoff spot with a .333 average, 24 hits, 20 runs scored, 10 RBIs and four doubles to go along with 18 walks and six stolen bases. Wood also helps set the table with a .278 average, 18 runs scored, 14 RBIs and one double. Dale Kinch is often Schmidt's first choice as a courtesy runner and the senior has scored 14 runs and stolen seven bases.

The Knights' pitching staff has also had a stellar season with a staff ERA of 1.77, allowing only 35 earned runs in 138.2 innings. Haynes leads the unit with a 9-0 record and an ERA of 1.67 after surrendering only 13 earned runs on 31 hits in 54.1 innings on the mound while fanning 47 and walking 25. Banfi is the Knights' other starting pitcher and he sports a 7-1 record with a 2.70 ERA after allowing 14 earned runs on 41 hits in 36.1 innings while striking out 47 and walking 11.

Rakow, Rhoads and Keely could also see time on the mound in relief for the Knights. Rakow sports a 2-0 record with seven saves and an ERA of 0.85 after giving up three earned runs on 14 hits in 24.2 innings with 27 strikeouts and 14 walks. Rhoads has pitched four scoreless innings, recording one save while surrendering four hits and fanning seven.

"I think the big key for us is to put the ball in play and force their defense to make plays," Schmidt said. "We need to find ways to get guys on base and not let their pitcher get a bunch of strikeouts."