Not even Braylon Thomas saw this one coming.
After leading No. 10 seed Union to a 26-0 victory against top-seeded, defending champion Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL Class 1A championship game Friday at Acrisure Stadium, however, the junior quarterback couldn’t help but let a smile wash across his face.
“To win in this way, no, because they’re a pretty good football team,” said Thomas after leading the Scotties to their first WPIAL title since 1959 when they shared the crown with Avonworth. “I thought it was going to be a nail-biter coming to the end, but our defense played great today and we got it done.”
Thomas rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, while completing 8 of 15 passes for 80 yards and one interception.
“I knew we had a coach that could get us far, but it’s just with little old Union you never really expect us to be here,” he said. “So, it’s just a great experience.”
Union (11-3) forced Bishop Canevin (12-2) into four turnovers and held the high-powered Crusaders to just 179 yards of total offense.
The Scotties, who advance to face the winner of a PIAA quarterfinal game between Port Allegany and Reynolds, are the highest seed to win a WPIAL championship since No. 14 Central Valley knocked off No. 1 Montour, 24-7, to claim the 2010 WPIAL Class 3A title.
“I think the biggest thing with us was we just had to prevent the big play,” first-year Union coach Kim Niedbala said. “They’re so explosive. They 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.”
Bishop Canevin quarterbacks Kole Olszewski and Jason Cross were under pressure most of the game.
Olszewski completed 8 of 15 passes for 146 yards and was sacked four times, while Cross completed 3 of 6 passes for 24 yards and was sacked once.
The Crusaders were held to just 19 yards rushing and were penalized 14 times for 136 yards.
“We knew they were a heck of a football team coming in,” Crusaders coach Rich Johnson said. “We knew we had our hands full. We prepared the same way. I thought we had a good team game plan coming in, unfortunately they executed better than we did today.”
And that started with the Union offense, which possessed the football for 29:09, while Bishop Canevin’s offense was on the field for just 18:51.
“That was kind of the game plan also going in,” Niedbala said. “Obviously, when you talk about their explosive offense, the best way is to keep them off the field. We were able to mix in both the run and the pass.”
Union used an 11-play, 33-yard drive that took 5:23 off the clock to score the only points of the first half when Thomas scored from 6 yards out with 2:46 left in the first quarter. Thomas connected with junior wide receiver Grayson Blakely for a 2-point conversion that gave the Scotties an 8-0 advantage.
Union converted two critical fourth-down plays to keep the first-quarter drive alive.
The first conversion came out of the wild cat when running back Mike Gunn caught a pass from Thomas.
The quarterback then completed a pass to sophomore wide receiver Maddox Thompson for the second fourth-down conversion to again keep the drive alive.
The Scotties converted 2 of 3 fourth-down conversion plays in the first half.
“We only had two possessions the whole first half,” Johnson said. “They were able to control the ball to keep us off the field. They did what they needed to do. Unfortunately, tonight, we did not.”
Things got worse for the Crusaders in the second half.
Thomas opened the second-half scoring when he capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive with a 38-yard touchdown run with 4:03 left in the third quarter.
“We talked about it at halftime, we had the lead, but we wanted to make sure we came out strong,” Niedbala said. “We didn’t score a lot offensively, but we were able to control the football, I think, and drive the field so I think that was a huge part of the game.”
Union’s defense then added a pair of scores to put the game out of reach.
Matt Stanley returned a fumble 32 yards for a touchdown before Mike Gunn added a 59-yard interception return for a score to hand the Scotties a 26-0 lead with 3:15 left in the third quarter.
“The defensive line got in there, and they held him up. I just saw the ball and I ripped it out, and next thing I knew it was just a touchdown,” Stanley said.
The defensive touchdowns were crippling for the Crusaders.
“Those quick two turnovers in the second half we just couldn’t come back from,” Johnson said.
Bishop Canevin graduates 11 seniors from a team that outscored its 2022 postseason opponents — Jeannette, Clairton and South Side Beaver — by a combined score of 141-41.
“We took one step forward and five steps back,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, for football games sometimes it goes that way. Tonight just wasn’t our night. I want to say how proud I am of our kids. They battled all year.”
Union will look to keep its miracle postseason run alive. The Scotties 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.
For Niedbala, who was the defensive coordinator under head coach Bob Palko when Mt. Lebanon won WPIAL and PIAA titles last season, Union’s win was extra special as well. He is the son of legendary Western Beaver coach Rich Niedbala, who won three WPIAL titles over more than three decades at the school.
“I lost my dad this summer, and he didn’t get to watch it,” Niedbala said of his first WPIAL title victory as a head coach. “It’s a little bittersweet.”