STORY BY JAKE DONOVAN | PHOTOS BY STEVE WHEELER
The annual “Battle of Franklin” turned out to be a statement-making showcase for the Franklin Rebels.
They dominated crosstown rival Centennial High School in a 28-14 home win Friday evening at Howard Gamble Stadium.
Senior running back Matt Gaca rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns on the night. Quarterback Josh Nichols (7-10, 75 yards, 1 TD) provided the other two scores, throwing for one touchdown and rushing for another in pushing Franklin above .500 for the first time this season.
“This was a game we absolutely had to win if we even wanted to thinking about making any noise in the playoffs,” Franklin head coach Donnie Webb told Home Page. “We knew coming in that we were the best 3-3 football team in the state, but we have to start beating these Williamson County teams if want to be taken seriously, especially in this area.”
This was Franklin’s first in-county victory in two years.
All three of the Rebels’ losses have come versus WillCo teams, but they came flying out the gate in an emotionally charged rivalry game. There have been many plot twists in nearly two decades worth of ‘Battle of Franklin’ matchups, but the latest began with Franklin recovering an onside kickoff to start the game with short field position.
Gaca drove the Rebels down the field, with Nichols closing the show on a one-yard run to give the home team an early lead they would never relinquish.
Centennial enjoyed a lengthy drive on its first possession, but in eating up nearly five minutes of game clock came up empty. Cougars’ star running back Jariel Wilson (34 rushing yards, 61 receiving yards, 1 rec. TD) was stripped clean by Rashad Jenkins, with Chapman Beaird recovering the fumble at Franklin’s own 12 yard line.
A mere 88 yards later, Franklin jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Once again, it was Gaca doing the heavy lifting on much of the drive (51 yards on five carries), but the score came courtesy of a Nichols 31-yard strike to Chancellor Bright.
The threat of competitive football came early in the second quarter, when Centennial came flying out the gate as quarterback Grayson Marcel (10-19, 101 yds, 1 TD) connected with Wilson on a 45-yard catch and sprint to cut the deficit in half.
“One thing I’m always proud to say about these boys, they never stop fighting,” Centennial head coach Matt Kriesky told Home Page. “This rivalry goes both ways [in terms of being competitive; Centennial won 24-21 a year ago]. Both teams knew what was at stake tonight, and we played our hearts out every whistle.”
Unfortunately for Centennial, the Cougars’ fate would ultimately be decided by halftime.
Gaca pushed well past the 100-yard barrier early into the second quarter, which ended with the senior stud scoring on a 10-yard run. With 126 yards in the first half, Gaca already produced his third 100+ yard game of the season and wasn’t even close to being finished. He’d tack on another 84 in the second half, including a 12 yard run to give the Rebels a 28-7 lead with 10 minutes to go.
“I just do what’s asked of me,” Gaca told the Home Page. “The line has really been opening up some huge holes for me all season long. Everyone was charged up for tonight, and I just keep looking for ways to contribute.”
Centennial added a late score to once again cut the lead in half, but simply ran out of time to make any more of an impact.
“It was an emotional game,” said Kriesky, the second straight week he had to endure such an event. Just one week prior, his Cougars traveled to Murfreesboro, where a buzzer-beating field goal provided a 37-34 win over a Riverdale HS squad coached by his twin brother Will.
In the latest installment of the Battle of Franklin just seven days later, Kriesky found himself locking horns with his former mentor in Coach Webb. A year after the student prevailed, this time it was the teacher’s revenge, not that it was the viewpoint shared by either side.
“I’ve known Matt a long time, he’s a tremendous coach and has a heck of a team over there,” Webb acknowledged. “All these boys are from here, so the game means a bit more. In the end, it wouldn’t mean anything to our postseason hopes if we didn’t walk out of here with a win. There’s not a lot of season left; that’s what we were playing for.”
Franklin (4-3), having now won two straight, hits the road next week as they take on Oakland High School before a 14-day break. Centennial (3-4) , who snaps a two-game win streak, head to Hillsboro High School next week in the final leg of a three-game road trip.
Below is a slideshow by photographer Steve Wheeler.