Union playoff run ends with loss to Steelton-Highspire in PIAA Class A football final

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Thursday, December 8, 2022 | 3:42 PM


MECHANICSBURG – Union could see the end zone all afternoon, but didn’t get there enough.

The offense created four red-zone chances Thursday and crossed the goal line only once in a 22-8 loss to Steelton-Highspire that ended the Scotties’ Cinderella story in the PIAA Class A final at Cumberland Valley’s Chapman Field.

The Scotties ran a few more offensive plays than their opponent and led in time of possession, but those didn’t show on the scoreboard.

“You’ve got to put the ball in the end zone at the end of the day,” said first-year coach Kim Niedbala, who led Union to its first state finals appearance. “We didn’t do that.”

Instead, Steelton-Highspire running back Ronald Burnette leaned on a big, physical offensive line and crossed the goal line three times on runs of 3, 1 and 19 yards. The junior rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries as the District 3 champions pulled away late.

His 19-yard TD run with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left gave the Rollers a 20-8 lead.

“Our offensive line has been physical all year,” Steelton-Highspire coach Andrew Erby said. “Union was a good football team. They fought inside the box. They had some really good football players. We were able to chip away.”

The title was the second in three years for Steelton-Highspire (14-1).

Union (12-4) trailed 7-0 at halftime after coming up empty on first-half possessions that ended at the 15-, 19- and 9-yard lines. The first two ended with failed fourth-down conversions and the third resulted in an interception in the end zone.

One touchdown was negated by penalty.

“Our kids battled,” Niedbala said. “That’s a good football team. Look at how many Division I guys they have over there. We’ve got 26 kids. It’s kind of funny. Our kids battled, though, that’s all I can say.”

Steelton-Highspire quarterback Alex Erby, a 6-foot-4 junior with Pitt among his college offers, completed 9 of 15 passes for 139 yards. Junior receiver Jaeion Perry caught seven passes for 120 yards.

Yet, the Scotties hung close.

Union’s defense earned a fourth-quarter safety when Erby was flagged for intentional grounding in the end zone, cutting Steelton-Highspire’s lead to 13-8 with 11 minutes left.

Union finished second in the Big Seven Conference and entered the WPIAL playoffs as a No. 10 seed, but went on a five-game postseason run that made school history.

“They did a lot of things they’ve never done before as far as football goes,” Niedbala said. “A lot of kids came out that haven’t played since sixth, seventh, eighth grade. So, we’re very proud of them.”

Union hired Niedbala in April as football coach and athletic director at one of the smallest schools in the WPIAL. The son of a three-time WPIAL champion, Niedbala was an assistant last season on Mt. Lebanon’s state championship team.

Would folks have believed eight months ago that Union was headed to the state finals?

“I don’t know,” Niedbala said, “but we did. Trust me, I knew what we had here with kids. I didn’t leave a 6A school to go to a 1A school just to take a job.”

Scotties quarterback Braylon Thomas scored Union’s only touchdown on a 1-yard run in the third quarter, capping a 13-play, 63-yard drive. The Scotties trailed 7-6 when the 2-point pass fell incomplete.

Thomas rushed for 80 yards on 29 carries, but that total was hurt by 56 yards lost on negative plays.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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