Union aims to prevent Bishop Canevin from defending WPIAL Class A title

Wednesday, November 23, 2022 | 2:13 PM

A season ago, the Bishop Canevin Crusaders completed a turnaround from 1-9 in 2019 to WPIAL champions in Class A under then second-year coach Richard Johnson.

Not only did the Crusaders win the second football championship in school history in 2021, but they brought most of the roster back for the 2022 season, with only a few losses to graduation.

In Week Zero, Bishop Canevin lost 21-14 to Steelton-Highspire, which has since won District 3’s Class A title and is set to take on North Lehigh Saturday in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Since what Johnson described as a grounding loss, Bishop Canevin has been on a roll and enters Friday’s Class A title game winners of 12 straight games. Four of those wins are by shutout and in 10 of 12, the Crusaders have put up 33 points or more. They’ve hit the 60-point mark three times in that span and hold playoff victories over No. 16 Jeannette, No. 9 Clairton and No. 5 South Side in the last three weeks, all by at least 23 points.

“With so many kids coming back, our kids were on a high and we needed to be grounded,” Johnson said. “I think that loss grounded us and showed us we needed to work harder. We’re playing some good football right now.”

The top-seeded Crusaders now head back to Acrisure Stadium to try and defend their title, but this time, against an unlikely foe.

The Union Scotties, who are 10-3 overall, are the 10 seed in the Class A bracket. The Scotties hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2017 before this season. Then they made their first semifinal appearance since 1979. Now, Union has made it to its third WPIAL title game — its first since 1973.

It turns out the Big Seven Conference probably didn’t get the love it deserved. All four playoff teams from the conference won first-round games and two, Union and Rochester, played each other last week in a 10 versus 14 matchup to send a team to Acrisure Stadium. Union prevailed 18-16, a week after knocking off second-seeded Laurel in the quarterfinals. South Side, the other playoff team from the Big Seven, lost to Bishop Canevin last week.

Now, the WPIAL’s lowest seed to ever make a WPIAL title game in the six-classification era has a chance to add a second WPIAL championship trophy to the school’s case … if it can knock off the defending champs.

Friday’s first game at Acrisure Stadium will be the sixth meeting between the Scotties and Crusaders. Bishop Canevin leads the all-time series 3-2, but Union won the two most recent meetings in 2018 and 2019, including a 56-22 win in 2019. But these teams are much different now.

Bishop Canevin has scored at 41.8 points per game and allows just 8.7. The Crusaders are the only team in the district with four 1,000-yard performers.

Both quarterbacks, junior Jason Cross and sophomore Kole Olszewski, are in the top five in Class A in passing yards and touchdowns. Cross has thrown for 1,277 yards and 18 touchdowns while his younger teammate has thrown for 1,373 yards and 16 touchdowns. They’ve combined for only four interceptions.

Junior tailback Marquis Carter has run for 1,545 yards and 11 touchdowns and senior wide receiver Xavier Nelson, who was last year’s Class A championship MVP for HSSN, has caught 39 passes for 1,230 yards and 18 touchdowns. That big-play ability is apparent with a lot of Crusaders, but most with Nelson, who, by those numbers, is averaging 31.5 yards per catch. He’s one of just six WPIAL wideouts with 1,000 or more yards and is 73 yards behind Serra’s Amire Spencer for the top receiving yards total in District 7.

“We built our brand off balance. Obviously, you don’t go out there and shoot to have four 1,000-yard guys,” Johnson said. “It’s a testament to our unselfishness. This day and age there are a lot of selfish people out there and it’s everyone. We’ve been able to sacrifice for the greater team. I don’t know how much more balanced you can get.”

The Crusaders defense is impressive as well. Bishop Canevin has allowed 126 yards per game and has 38 sacks, 32 turnovers forced, eight defensive touchdowns and boasts a freshman defensive end (Daiveon Taylor) who has 17 sacks. Braden Travis leads the team with 113 tackles, including 26 tackles for loss.

On the other side, the Scotties are scoring at a 28.3 points per game clip and allowed just under 17 points a game. The three losses are to Canton, whom they picked up Tuesday of Week Zero after their game with Mohawk was called off, Laurel and South Side.

Junior quarterback Braylon Thomas makes the offense go. He’s a 1,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher. He’s 62 of 136 for 1,048 yards, 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions through the air and has run for 1,375 yards on 213 carries. Thomas has 17 rushing touchdowns, none bigger than the winner last week that came from 58 yards in the semifinals.

He’s joined by Mike Gunn, who’s run for 451 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Matt Stanley, who has racked up 346 yards on the ground, as the main weapons on that side of the ball for the Scotties. Maddox Thompson and Dayne Johnke both have 10 or more receptions for the group.

It’s all under the direction of first-year coach Kim Niedbala, who was a longtime assistant under Bob Palko at both West Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon.

Niedbala said the players had a sense of winning coming in and that he’s not surprised they’ve been able to make a run, though it took a while to figure out the identity the Scotties have.

“At the end of the day winning’s not easy,” Niedbala said. “They’ve bought in to what we’re trying to teach and coach and what we’re trying to make the program about. Once we figured out who we were and what we were trying to accomplish, the lightbulb (that we could do damage) went on for us and the kids too.”

Both coaches emphasized a need to limit big plays and stop the run as keys to a winning formula.

“They’re explosive. They have multiple athletes. (Nelson) is the most dangerous but there’s three or four other wideouts they can get the ball to. The tailback is very good. They have two quarterbacks that can do it all,” Niedbala said. “You have to try and make sure they have to drive the field. They’re going to get some (splash plays); you just have to minimize them.”

Johnson said they’ll have to key on Thomas’ ability to run the ball.

“They’re a well-coached, disciplined football team. They’re able to use some formations that create some mismatches, and that quarterback is playing some really good football,” Johnson said. “We know they’re not going to try to come out here and just beat us up. We need to be ready and alert at all times.”

Union will try and become the eighth team seeded sixth or lower to win a title since 2000. In the six-classification era, five teams seeded sixth or lower have made the title game with the most recent being OLSH last season in the Class A title game as a No. 9 seed. Union becomes the sixth. It is the fifth double-digit seed to make a title game since 2000 on the gridiron.

On the other hand, the Crusaders are looking to become the 18th occurrence of back-to-back titles since 2000. In all, 12 other programs have accomplished the feat, with several winning three in a row and Thomas Jefferson, Central Catholic and Clairton having done it at least twice. Central Catholic has done it three times.

Some of the players on the Scotties’ roster played in last year’s Class A boys basketball title game, while others are on the baseball team, which has won back-to-back titles. Niedbala is not expecting the big atmosphere to be an issue for his group, but acknowledged the big stadium may take an adjustment. Johnson said his team likely won’t have the wow factor of Acrisure Stadium after having played there and won a year ago.

The Class A championship game is slated for 11 a.m. Friday, and can been seen exclusively on the TribLIVE High School Sports Network.

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