The Union football team hasn’t played in a WPIAL championship game since 1973 – and the program’s only district title came in 1959.

Don’t tell the current crop of Scotties they have no experience on the WPIAL’s grandest stage.

When No. 10 seed Union (10-3) faces top-seeded Bishop Canevin (12-1) in the WPIAL Class 1A championship game at 11 a.m. Friday at Acrisure Stadium, first-year Scotties coach Kim Niedbala believes his players will take the field with a measure of confidence.

“Almost all my kids play basketball and baseball,” he said. “They’ve been in WPIAL championships. They were in the WPIAL basketball championship last year, and they’ve won the past two WPIAL baseball championships.

“So, they’ve been in WPIAL championships. It just so happens to be football this year.”

Bishop Canevin has been there and done that, too.

The Crusaders, who haven’t been threatened with a loss since an opening-week 21-14 setback at the hands of perennial power Steelton-Highspire, are poised to defend their WPIAL Class 1A title from a year ago.

“They’re still excited,” Bishop Canevin coach Rich Johnson said. “Once you have the opportunity to go down there and play for another WPIAL championship, I don’t know how you can’t be excited for that one. It’s a new year. We have new kids in new roles. Some of those kids were just down there on the sideline watching.”

Much like last year when the Crusaders rolled through the playoffs to defeat Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the WPIAL title game, Bishop Canevin has outscored its 2022 postseason opponents — Jeannette, Clairton and South Side Beaver — by a combined score of 141-41.

“We competed a lot this summer, and we just kind of refocused,” Johnson said. “The Steel High loss earlier this year kind of brought them back down. Since then, we’ve had our eye on the prize, and we’ve been able to be successful. We’ve had a lot of fun while we’re doing it.”

And that starts with the Crusaders’ offense.

Bishop Canevin employs a two-quarterback system. Kole Olszewski has completed 85 of 128 passes for 1,373 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, while Jason Cross has converted on 50 of 85 attempts for 1,277 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Cross has also rushed for 289 yards and 12 scores.

“They are dangerous in their own way, and that’s why we have always tried to use both of them,” Johnson said. “Kole is your typical quarterback. He has sneaky athleticism, good QB IQ and all that. Cross is more your athlete. Cross is definitely blossoming into a really good leader this year, mainly. It’s kind of pick your poison.”

The favorite target of Olszewski and Cross is Xavier Nelson, who has 39 catches for 1,230 yards and 22 touchdowns. Marquis Carter leads the Crusaders’ rushing attack with 1,545 yards and 11 touchdowns on 182 carries.

“At the end of the day, you have to try and prevent them from having big splash plays,” Niedbala said. “They’re so athletic.

“You’ve just got to try and make them grind the field,” he added, “and hopefully they don’t pop a few big ones on you.”

For Niedbala and Johnson, though, the game will be won and lost in the trenches.

Johnson said Bishop’s Canevin’s strength has arisen from the play of its offensive line, particularly from three-year starting right guard Zeke Swift, second-year starting center Braiden Sudor and left tackle Justin Lashley.

Union will look to counter with strong play from its defensive line, led by 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior Mark Stanley and outside linebackers Kaden Fischer and Maddox Thompson.

Stopping Bishop Canevin’s offense will clearly be a big challenge, Niedbala said.

“Basically, it’s going to have to be 11 guys on defense,” he said.

On offense, the Scotties lean on junior quarterback Braylon Thomas, who has thrown for 981 yards, 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and has rushed for a team-high 1,168 yards and 15 touchdowns on 192 carries.

“We’ve got to make sure we tackle,” Johnson said. “If you kind of watch their film, he breaks a lot of tackles, so we have to make sure we are fundamentally sound and hit and wrap. He’s an elusive guy, and he’s sneaky fast.”

Union’s rushing attack is also complemented by junior running back Mike Gunn, who has rushed for 403 yards and nine touchdowns. The receiving game is led by Thompson, who has corralled 16 catches for 210 yards and two scores, and Dayne Johnke, who has nine catches for 208 yards and three touchdowns

“Braylon does a good job,” Niedbala said of the leader of his offense. “He runs the ball really well. He can also throw it some. We try and mix it up with him a little bit. It’s his first year really playing quarterback. We’re still learning exactly what he does great and what he doesn’t. We use a lot of different guys and we use a lot of different guys at quarterback.

“Overall, we use a bunch of different guys.”

And Niedbala is hoping the momentum his team has gained through a tough playoff run will pay dividends in the WPIAL championship game.

Union opened postseason play with a 32-7 victory against Burgettstown before capturing narrow wins against Big Seven Conference foes Laurel and Rochester by scores of 30-28 and 18-16, respectively.

“Winning is not easy,” said Niedbala, the son of legendary Western Beaver coach Rich Niedbala, who won three WPIAL titles over more than three decades at the school. “That’s one thing I commend these kids for. Every time we win, you’ve got to flip the page.”

In addition to his family history with the WPIAL championship game, Niedbala was defensive coordinator of Mt. Lebanon’s WPIAL and PIAA title team from a year ago. He was a member of Blue Devils coach Bob Palko’s staff since 2015 when he was still at West Allegheny, before taking the job at Union over the summer.

So will the pressure of facing the top team in Class 1A in an NFL stadium spell trouble for Niedbala and his players?

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “I’ve played in [the WPIAL championship] as a player. My dad played and coached in them. I’ve coached in them. It’ll be a little different because I’m a head coach now.

“At the end of the day, it’s all coaching. It’s what we’ve all done, or what I’ve done my whole career. To me, it’s just another game, and I want to go out and have a good performance.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at