Union looks to ride wave of championship momentum to another strong season

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Monday, August 21, 2023 | 9:54 PM


Union senior quarterback Braylon Thomas doesn’t want to see the party end after the seismic wave of momentum that overtook the football team last season.

The Scotties won their first WPIAL title since 1959 and made it to the PIAA Class A title game before bowing to Steelton-Highspire.

In a year where the girls basketball team won the PIAA title and boys basketball team reached the PIAA semifinals, the school district collectively set a new standard of excellence.

The Scotties’ football team finished 12-4.

“All the other sports were successful,” Thomas said. “It was about time the football team had it. We have kept the energy and have a strong community behind us. We want this to be the new standard.”

The fruits of winning a WPIAL title have already paid dividends for the program. Union opened camp with 32 players, more than the 27 it had last season. The Scotties believe the experience gained and the energy built up can lead to more good things when Union opens the season Aug. 26 against Mohawk.

“At the end of the day, each team is different,” coach Kim Niedbala said. “We were able to get to the playoffs and make a nice run last year. Those kids have seen that. We’re so small that kids play multiple sports and have been in the WPIAL finals before. It was nice to add another football one. The experience from last year will help us.”

Thomas, a senior quarterback, exemplifies what experience and versatility can do for a program. In addition to playing quarterback, Thomas also returns kicks and punts and can contribute on defense as well.

It leaves Thomas constantly thinking about what needs to be done.

“Remembering what to do,” said Thomas on the challenge of playing multiple positions. “I’m not perfect, but the coaches are able to help and they understand where I need to be. They put us in positions to be successful.”

Thomas flourished under center last season, passing for 1,202 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also ran for 1,466 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. The Scotties will have plenty of key contributors returning for this season.

Running back Mike Gunn finished second on the team in rushing with 550 yards last season and also was third in receiving yards with 201. Dayne Johnke led the team with 297 yards on 15 catches and will return at wide receiver. Grayson Blakely will also return at wide receiver for the Scotties.

Jamel Mitchell, Jordan Brown and Robert McCurdy will all return up front, and Niedbala said there will be others who will settle quickly into new roles. Who they will be remains to be seen.

“I really couldn’t tell you until we play a scrimmage,” Niedbala said. “We have a bunch of guys vying for positions. We want to see how they handle the way we practice and how we approach things.”

Thomas wants practice to be geared toward maintaining the standard Union has set. The Scotties have tasted what it is like to make it to the top. Union doesn’t want to see anything fall by the wayside.

“We want to stick by each other and not have a letdown,” Thomas said. “If one guy is down, he will have 31 other guys there to help him. No one is going to be let down.”

Union

Coach: Kim Niedbala

2022 record: 12-4, 4-2 in Class A Big 7 Conference

All-time record: 371-497-26

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

9.1 at Ellwood City, 7

9.8 Cornell, 7

9.15 Shenango*, 7

9.22 at Laurel*, 7

9.29 at Springdale, 7

10.6 Rochester*, 7

10.13 at Northgate*, 7

10.20 South Side*, 7

10.28 at Summit Academy*, 12:30

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Braylon Thomas

77-160, 1,202 yards, 14 TDs

Rushing: Thomas

252-1,466 yards

Receiving : Dayne Johnke

15-297 yards

FAST FACTS

• Union won its first state playoff game last season when it defeated District 9 champion Port Allegany, 46-36, in the PIAA Class A semifinals.

• The Scotties lost 22-8 to Steelton-Highspire in the PIAA title game last season.

• Union finished in third place in the Big 7 last season.

• Kim Niedbala was the defensive coordinator for Mt. Lebanon when it won a WPIAL Class 6A and PIAA title in 2021.

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