Union vies for 1st PIAA championship against veteran Steelton-Highspire

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022 | 11:51 AM


The list of firsts for the Union Area football program continues to grow.

The Scotties won their first outright WPIAL championship, were the first double-digit seed to play in or win a Class A football title. On the way, Union defeated a county foe in the playoffs (the first time two Lawrence County schools ever played each other in the playoffs), defeated a team twice in the same season (Rochester), and have achieved a 12-win campaign for the first time in program history.

Now the Scotties are one win away from the first PIAA championship in any team sport in school history.

Union (12-3) will take on District 3 champion Steelton-Highspire (13-1) in the PIAA Class A championship at 1 p.m. Thursday at Cumberland Valley High School’s Chapman Field.

It all began with another first — Kim Niedbala, the first new head coach on the Union sideline in 25 years.

A longtime assistant under Bob Palko, Niedbala won state titles at West Allegheny and Mt. Lebanon. “Coach Nee” has brought the championship mentality to Lawrence County, and with it, a chance at even more history at “The U” in his inaugural year.

“It’s great for the kids first and foremost,” Niedbala said. “They’re the ones who got here. It’s great for the school and great for the community.”

This year’s Cinderella story in Western Pennsylvania saw the No. 10-seeded Scotties get victories over No. 7 Burgettstown, No. 2 Laurel and No. 14 Rochester on the way to the WPIAL championship game at Acrisure Stadium. Union shut out top-seeded Bishop Canevin, 26-0, for its first outright WPIAL football championship.

Union followed that with a 46-36 victory over District 9 champion Port Allegany in the PIAA semifinals last week.

The only other time a Union team made it to the state championship was the 2003 boys basketball squad. In similar fashion, that Scotties team was a No. 12 seed in the WPIAL playoffs that made an improbable trek to the district title, then continued into a state playoff run to get to the title game. Union lost to Scotland School, 80-69, in the PIAA championship that year.

Basketball coach Mark Stanley’s twin sons, Matthew and Mark, are senior starters on this year’s football team who might finally bright state gold home.

The big game atmosphere will not affect Union on Thursday, according to Niedbala. Fifteen of the 25 players on the roster play multiple sports, with eight being three-sport athletes. Those eight have already played in three district championship games in the year 2022 alone. After district silver medals in basketball and gold medals in baseball and football, Union has a chance to now bring home the elusive state gold home to “Title Township.”

Leading the way offensively for Union is quarterback Braylon Thomas. The junior is the first player in Scotties history to rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He has run for 20 touchdowns and thrown for 14 more.

Matthew Stanley and Mike Gunn also have taken consistent snaps at quarterback over the course of the season. Both ran for 90-plus yards in the semifinals. Stanley had a 31-yard touchdown in the first half, and Gunn had two long touchdown carries in the second half. The two have combined for 21 touchdowns.

Stanley and Gunn each had defensive touchdowns in the third quarter of the WPIAL championship as well. In total, the Union defense has forced 19 turnovers in five postseason games, four of which have been returned for touchdowns.

Last week, it was Kaden Fisher’s 62-yard fumble return for a touchdown that created immediate points for the Union defense.

Fisher was the fourth Union player to take snaps at quarterback in the first half last week. With Thomas briefly sidelined with an injury, Stanley drove the team to the 31-yard line just before halftime. Fisher then fired a Hail Mary pass to the back of the end zone for a touchdown to Dayne Johnke.

“We have a lot of threats coming off the bench and everything,” Fisher said. “Thomas is great player. We needed him, but other guys stepped up and made plays.”

Five Union players had to leave the field with injuries at times in the semifinals. Niedbala said the team is healthy and ready to go for Thursday.

“We’re healthy, we’ll show up and go with who we have,” he said.

In the way is a Steelton-Highspire (13-1) program that has played more high school football games all-time than any other school in the country. This year’s Steamrollers averages just shy of 43 points per game, the highest in the program’s 130-year history.

“They’re very talented,” Niedbala said. “They have a bunch of different athletes at wideout to deal with.”

Wide receivers Daquan McCraw and Jaeion Perry each had 10 receptions in last week’s 28-21 victory over Canton. The team’s leading receiver, Rell Caesar, is ineligible for the championship game. The junior, who has 66 receptions and 1,108 yards on the year, is serving a two-game suspension after being ejected in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Steel-High junior quarterback Alex Erby, son of coach Andrew Erby, has thrown for more than 3,000 yards for the second consecutive season, tossing 40 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He and his twin brother, offensive lineman Andrew Erby Jr., both have numerous Division I scholarship offers. They both started as freshmen on the 2020 state championship team.

“The quarterback is obviously a very good player,” Niedbala said of Erby. “He’s a coach’s son, so he’s very well-versed with the offense. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Junior running back Ronald Burnette has three touchdown runs in each of Steel-High’s three state playoff games, rushing for 189 yards per game on average. He scored the game-winning touchdown in the come-from-behind victory over Canton with 34 seconds remaining.

The Steamrollers also had a last-minute victory over Northern Lehigh in the PIAA quarterfinals. Perry caught the game-winning touchdown with four seconds left in a 35-28 victory in which Steel-High scored four touchdowns in the final quarter.

“We must give max effort in all three phases of the game,” Coach Erby said of his team’s biggest key to success on Thursday. “The key is to stay laser focused when adversity hits.”

Steelton-Highspire defeated Bishop Canevin, 21-14, in Week Zero in nonconference play. Steel-High’s only loss was to Westinghouse in Week 1. The City League champions defeated the Steamrollers, 39-18, and are playing in the PIAA Class 2A championship game Friday.

For Union, it’s a short week with lengthy travel. The team will take the four-hour bus ride Wednesday night from New Castle to Mechanicsburg. Steelton-Highspire, located in Harrisburg, has a 15-mile trip to Chapman Stadium.

“We just had to move things up a little bit,” Niedbala said of the shortened week. “We had to make Thursday into Wednesday, and so on and so forth. Just had to adapt and adjust. Nothing we can do about it, we already knew what the schedule was going to be, and just had to go with it.”

At the beginning of the season, Union was nowhere on the map for any prognosticators. Most would probably confuse Union for Rimersburg before checking out the 9.7-square mile area in New Castle.

But don’t call Union Area a Cinderella story at this point. The Scotties have become a battle-tested group of champions one game away from the school’s first state championship. It would also be the second football state championship for a Lawrence County school (Wilmington, 2008).

Good news for Union — with a 1 p.m. kickoff, the game will be over long before midnight.

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