Payne taking on larger role for Franklin boys soccer

Griffin Atkison had a fairly large gravitational pull on the soccer pitch during his four years at Franklin, so when he graduated this past spring, Grizzly Cubs coach Tony Harris wasn’t entirely sure where his offense was going to come from.

“I didn’t know we’d be able to score,” Harris said.

Suffice to say that they’ve figured it out.

With a quartet of scorers leading the way by committee, Franklin is averaging about a goal and a half more per game than last season and is on track to be the highest scoring team of Harris’ tenure.

One big reason why has been the emergence of Matt Payne. The junior has been a fixture in the varsity lineup since his first day of high school, contributing 12 goals and nine assists over his first two seasons, but he’s upped his production considerably this fall. Having moved up into a striker spot alongside senior Dylan Harris, Payne has scored six goals and collected a team-leading 10 assists through Tuesday night’s loss at Columbus East, leading the way for what has become an extremely potent — and balanced — offense.

Payne knew that he’d have to assert himself more with Atkison taking his 77 career goals and 41 assists off to the University of Indianapolis, and he’s done so. Just not in the same way, and not all by himself.

Dylan Harris (7 goals, 4 assists) has also delivered up top, while fellow seniors Cole Hufford (9 goals, 3 assists) and Ethan Elsner (6 goals) have also picked up some of the scoring slack from the midfield.

“Losing Griffin was a big deal; he scored 20-something goals last year,” Payne said. “It’s hard to fill a spot like that, but I think with me in that role, it opens up more of an all-around aspect with the team. I don’t think I’m going to go out and score 26 goals in a season, but maybe it’ll be more spread out — some guy scores 15, another guy scores 15, another guy scores 12.”

So far, that’s about how it’s played out, and quite successfully. The Grizzly Cubs have scored 40 goals through their first nine matches, an average of 4.44, which puts them on track to challenge the 2013 squad (79 goals, 4.647 per game).

More importantly, Franklin has won seven of its first nine matches, and at 4-0 in league play heading into tonight’s trip to Martinsville, it’s on the inside track to a Mid-State Conference championship for the first time since 2016.

“It’d be a huge deal,” Payne said of possibly reclaiming that crown.

Payne is athletic enough that he was able to pick up diving at the beginning of last winter and place fifth at the sectional meet, missing out on a trip to the regional by fewer than four points. He isn’t sure whether he’ll get back on the board or focus his energy on indoor soccer, but that decision can wait a while.

For right now, he’s in a perfect position. Quite literally.

We’ve been able to let him play up top with Dylan, because Cole Hufford and Ethan Elsner and J.D. Sever have done their jobs,” Tony Harris said. “So that’s been really cool — they’ve done their job so he can play his normal position, his natural spot.

“I think he’s a little reluctant at times to play in the middle. … He really doesn’t like to take guys on when he’s playing in that position, and when he’s up top he feels freedom to be able to go and just take dudes one on one. That’s the kind of player we want him to be, so having Ethan and Cole and J.D. do their thing (in the midfield) has really helped us put him in a spot where he can take advantage of what his skill set is.”

The entire team has been reaping the benefits.