Unranked in the state polls all season long despite a one-loss record and a perfect Mid-State Conference mark, Franklin’s boys soccer team came into the Center Grove Sectional looking for a little bit of respect.

The Grizzly Cubs now have a big opportunity to earn it.

Franklin and the host Trojans both took care of business with relative ease in their respective semifinal matches Wednesday, setting up a Saturday afternoon showdown between the reigning state champion and a program eager to step out of its considerable shadow.

Center Grove rolled past Martinsville 5-0 in the first semi, and Franklin followed with a 5-0 rout of Whiteland. Saturday’s championship match starts at 2 p.m.

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“We just want the opportunity,” Grizzly Cubs coach Tony Harris said. “We’ve done a lot of work, the coaching staff, the community and the parents, to get Franklin soccer to where it is now. It’s that next step — beat Center Grove, win a sectional, get to a regional, and have other teams see us and be like, ‘OK, these guys can play a little bit.'”

“That’s a really good soccer team Center Grove’s got, so we’re going to have our hands full. But we’ve got some good players too, so I’m just hoping we can go out and compete.”

The Grizzly Cubs (14-1-2) needed all of 121 seconds to take the lead for good against the Warriors, getting an early goal from Garrett Snyder to seize the upper hand.

Whiteland held strong for the rest of the first half, but Franklin busted the floodgates open shortly after intermission. Owen Atkison converted a through ball from Joe Nerding just 2:14 into the second half, and within the next 4 minutes and 8 seconds, Fernando Lopez-Perez and Nerding each tacked on another goal.

“Once we get one,” Nerding said, “we start working, our chemistry gets better, and we start playing as a team and we just play beautiful soccer.”

Anton Wolkowicz had the final Franklin tally with 4:30 left, and Dylan Bastin came on late in relief of goalie Austin Barnard, who kept the Warriors off the board.

Whiteland head coach Justin VanHorn, whose club finishes the season at 5-11, had a young roster that he hopes will learn from its trial by fire this fall.

“We had tons of freshmen and sophomores starting,” he said, “so for them to be able to get the varsity experience, we’re only going to be better next year for it.”

The Trojans (10-3-3) put the Artesians away early, using goals from Griffin Smith, Jack Neal and Connor Campbell to build a 3-0 cushion in the first half. Smith found the back of the net again seven minutes into the second period, and Rodrigo Matamoros capped the scoring with 20:21 remaining off a feed from Collin Parry.

Center Grove’s lineup is almost entirely different than the one that marched to a Class 2A state championship last fall, and most of the Trojans were getting their first real taste of postseason soccer.

Smith said that being able to jump on top early helped ease the nerves a bit.

“It puts the other team down mentally,” he stated, “and it just helps us to feed off the momentum.”

Jacob Cooley worked the first 65 minutes in goal for Center Grove before Garret Wade came on to finish off the shutout.

Trojans coach Jameson McLaughlin was all smiles Wednesday, but he knows his team won’t have it as easy Saturday against a Franklin team hungry to make its mark.

“We’re always a big target,” McLaughlin said. “Being the state champs, we’re even bigger targets. So I don’t anticipate any easy games from here on out.”

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.