Union building around dominant lineman Aaron Gunn

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020 | 11:20 PM


They have one of the top players in the WPIAL, but will one dominant performer be enough to help Union turn around and enjoy success in the always competitive Big Seven Conference in Class A?

The Scotties finished in fifth place in the eight-team conference a year ago with an overall record of 3-7.

“Our goal each year is to make the playoffs and take our best shot if we get in,” Union coach Stacy Robinson said. “By that standard, we didn’t meet our goal, but we still had many positives that we can hopefully build on with the players that are returning.

“We lost some solid players on both sides of the ball in Tyler Benedict and Michael Flowers and Bryce Smith, but it’ll be time for other players to step up.”

One of those players is Louisville recruit Aaron Gunn. The 6-foot-3, 308-pound senior guard was an all-conference and all-state performer last year.

Gunn isn’t the only returning starter on the line as senior Jake Vitale and brother junior Nick Vitale are also back in the trenches, which Robinson believes should be a strength for his team.

“We have an experienced offensive line, which isn’t something we’re used to lately,” Robinson said. “Plus we have some people at our skill positions that I’m eager to see step up and take their turns.”

The team has six starters back on offense and seven on defense.

Two starting seniors who were wide receivers a year ago, Anthony Nealy and Ron Holmes, should be in the mix to play a bigger role on offense.

Junior Jackson Clark will take over as the top running back. He was the Scotties’ fullback and tight end a year ago.

One major concern is at quarterback as the search is on to replace Benedict under center.

“For the first time in quite a long time, I’ll have to start a quarterback that has no experience and no snaps at that position,” Robinson said.

The three players in the mix for the starting quarterback position are senior Anthony Stanley, junior Tyler Staub and freshman Braylen Thomas.

The battle cry for all smaller schools is staying healthy. Robinson says that and eliminating key mistakes would go a long way toward a Union postseason run.

“We need to stay healthy for one thing, and we need to be more consistent in all aspects of the game on offense, defense and special teams,” Robinson said. “Last year, we were in just about every game we played, but a breakdown somewhere hurt us eventually. The breakdowns, for the most part, were due to mental errors that could have been avoided with the right focus.”

It will take focus and more in the tough Big Seven. This year’s new look eight-team conference includes the two Class A finalists from 2018 in Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Rochester, 2019 conference co-champ Cornell and two-time 2A Three Rivers Conference champion Burgettstown moving down.

Robinson admitted there are a lot of new faces and tough programs on this year’s schedule.

“It seems Union and Rochester are the only two remaining teams from the heyday of the Big Seven in the 1990s and early 2000s,” he said. “There’s a nice mix of old and new, which makes the league exciting. One thing that will not change is the fact that each week you must prepare for a quality opponent.

“There are excellent coaches and excellent players in the Big Seven, and that is what makes it still one of best conferences in the state of Pennsylvania.”

Schedule

Coach: Stacy Robinson

2019 record: 3-7, 2-5 in Class A Big Seven Conference

All-time record: 351-484-26

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at Shenango*, 7

9.18, at Rochester*, 7

9.25, Northgate*, 7

10.2, at Cornell*, 7

10.10, at OLSH*, 7

10.16, Fort Cherry*, 7

10.23, Burgettstown*, 7

*Class A Big Seven Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Tyler Benedict*

121-207, 1,536 yards, 15 TDs

Rushing: Michael Flowers*

563 yards, 14 touchdowns

Receiving: Michael Flowers*

37-516 yards

*Graduated

Fun facts

• Union’s Stacy Robinson has quietly become one of the elder statesmen among WPIAL coaches as he prepares for his 24th season. Robinson is also the Union athletic director.

• The Scotties were a streaky bunch last year. They lost their first three games, then won three in a row before losing their final four games.

• Whoever is the new starting quarterback will have some big shoes to fill. Tyler Benedict threw for a school record 1,536 yards, breaking the previous record of 1,484 set in 1989 by Don Nogay.

• Union has missed the playoff the last two years. The Scotties beat Fort Cherry in the 2017 Class A first round, 30-21, before falling in the quarterfinals to California, 43-19.

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