PITTSBURGH — The odds were not good for No. 10 seed Union to pull off an upset against No. 1 Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL Class-1A championship on Friday at Acrisure Stadium, but I don’t think anyone envisioned a 26-0 shutout against the defending WPIAL champions. The Scotties never doubted that they were capable of taking down Bishop Canevin, however.
“I don’t think we talked about that at all,” Union head coach Kim Niedbala said about being heavy underdogs. “We knew who we were, we went to practice every day, and we were going to come out and play whether we won or lost. We were going to give it our all, and I think that’s what we did.”
In his first season as head coach, Niedbala led the Scotties to their first WPIAL title since 1959. Niedbala put all the credit on his players, though.
“It’s a credit to the kids,” Niedbala said. “I have always said whatever you put into it, they’re going to take out. They bought into it from summer workouts in the first week of June, eight weeks of that. We really didn’t know who we were as a team until after you put on the pads and scrimmaged and you actually play a game. It was a work in progress, but listen, we got lucky and stayed healthy, and these guys bought in, and we kind of peaked at the right time.”
The Scotties forced a whopping four turnovers, two of which went for touchdowns, and pitched a shutout against the high-powered Bishop Canevin offense. Coming into the WPIAL final, the Crusaders averaged 41.8 points per game.
“I think the biggest thing with us was we just had to prevent the big play,” Niedbala said about the Scotties shutout. “They’re so explosive (and) have so many different athletes. We had to try to keep the ball in front of us, and we had to be able to pressure the quarterback, and I think we did that fairly well today. But that was the main thing, keep the ball in front of us and prevent the big play.”
Union outside linebacker Matt Stanley had one of the Scotties’ defensive touchdowns, as he stripped Bishop Canevin running back Marquis Carter and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to give Union a commanding 20-0 lead in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Mike Gunn picked off Kole Olszewski’s ill-advised pass and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown to give the Scotties back-to-back defensive touchdowns, and a 26-0 lead. The pick-six by Gunn pretty much sealed the game.
“The defensive line got in there and they held him up, and I just saw the ball and I ripped it out. And next thing you know, it’s a touchdown,” Stanley said about his strip and return for a touchdown.
Bishop Canevin head coach Rich Johnson thought the back-to-back defensive touchdowns by Union were the deciding factor in the game.
“Those two quick turnovers in the second half, we just couldn’t come back from it,” Johnson said.
Johnson disagreed with the notion that Bishop Canevin underestimated the Scotties.
“No sir, no sir. We knew they were a heck of a football team coming in,” Johnson said. “We knew we had our hands full. We prepared the same way, I thought we had a good game plan coming in. Unfortunately, they executed better than we did today.”
While the defense created havoc all game, Union quarterback Braylon Thomas also had a standout performance with rushing touchdowns from 6 and 38 yards out. Thomas didn’t expect a 26-0 win over the defending WPIAL Class-A champions, but he had trust in Niedbala to lead the Scotties to a championship.
“I knew we had a coach who could get us far, but we’re just little ol’ Union. You never really expect us to be here,” Thomas said. “So, it’s just a great experience, and I love the journey.”
Niedbala’s dad, Rich Niedbala, passed away on July 8 at the age of 80, so it was an emotional moment for him to win a championship as a head coach without his dad. Rich Niedbala was a legendary head coach at Western Beaver High School for 31 years, recoding a 192-130-4 career record and three WPIAL titles. Under Bob Palko in 2021, Kim Niedbala won a WPIAL Class-6A title and state championship as the Blue Devils’ defensive coordinator. This title meant more, however.
“It probably meant more for me because I lost my dad this summer. He didn’t get to watch it, so it’s a little bittersweet,” Niedbala said.