It may be the first time Union High School has ever played in a PIAA championship football game.
A win for the Scotties against one of Pennsylvania’s most prolific powers would bring Lawrence County its only state football title.
But when Union (12-3) takes on Steelton-Highspire (13-1) in the PIAA Class 1A championship game at 1 p.m. on Thursday at Cumberland Valley High School’s Chapman Field, the Scotties’ approach to the historic contest will be simple.
“I think this is another game at the end of the day,” Scotties first-year coach Kim Niedbala said. “I’ve been in plenty of big games. You have to approach it the same. What’s the difference between this and the WPIAL at the end of the day? What’s the difference between this or when they were in the baseball WPIAL finals or the basketball WPIAL finals?
“What do you really tell them? ‘Hey, it’s another game.’ We all know that.”
And most around the state – especially the WPIAL – know Steelton-Highspire.
The Steamrollers, who have more than 800 wins all time, have won nine PIAA championships dating back to 1924. The last three Steel-High state titles came at the expense of Serra Catholic in 2007, Clairton in 2008 and Jeannette in 2020.
It’s the kind of resume Niedbala and his players are trying not to focus on.
“We just try and worry about ourselves and worry about executing what we can offensively and defensively and let the chips fall where they may after that,” Niedbala said.
While Union may not be one of the state’s premier football powers historically, Steelton-Highspire coach Andrew Erby has developed a healthy respect for the Scotties.
Union has punctuated its current six-game winning streak with an impressive 26-0 victory against Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL championship game and a 46-36 PIAA semifinal win against Port Allegany last Friday.
If the Scotties weren’t always on the Steamrollers’ radar, they certainly are now.
“I think they established themselves definitely as, if not the best team in the state, one of the top teams in the state,” Erby said. “I think they have a lot of solid athletes across the board at all positions. They’re a team, they’re explosive enough, that if you don’t come out to play, they can put 21 points on you real quick.”
The same is certainly true of Steel-High.
The Steamrollers’ offense is led by one of the top quarterbacks in the state in Alex Erby. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound junior has completed 203-of-278 passes for 3,389 yards and 40 touchdowns, while also rushing for 193 yards and three scores.
“The quarterback is a very good player,” Niedbala said of Erby, who has scholarship offers from Pitt, Louisville and Nebraska. “He’s a lefty, and I believe he’s the coach’s son, so he’s very well versed in the game. They’ve got multiple skill guys and the guy that really makes them go is their tailback [Ronald Burnette Jr.]. You give him a seam and that’s it.”
Burnette has rushed for 1,012 yards and 19 touchdowns on 128 carries.
Steel-High also boasts a bevy of other dangerous skill position players.
Versatile junior Jaeion Perry, who has rushed for 407 yards, nine touchdowns and caught 50 passes for 799 yards and nine scores, is critical to the Steamrollers’ offensive attack, along with Rell Ceaser, who has 66 catches for 1,108 yards and 13 touchdowns, and Daquan McGraw, who has 48 catches for 852 yards and eight scores.
“They can spread it around all over the place,” Niedbala said. “You’ve got to minimize the big play. They get in crazy formations and throw bubble screens. You’ve got to minimize those plays.”
Erby is preparing his team to contend with an explosive Union offense in its own right.
Quarterback Braylon Thomas has thrown for 1,128 yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and added a team-high 1,413 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground for the Scotties.
Mike Gunn has added 460 yards on 81 carries and 183 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns for the Scotties, while Maddox Thompson has 18 catches for 226 yards, and Dayne Johnke has 12 catches for 241 yards.
“I don’t think you necessarily stop a kid like [Thomas]; you do your best to try and slow him down,” Erby said. “I think our secondary guys need to be disciplined, but at the line of scrimmage, we need to make sure we try to at least get a stalemate up front. They move kids up front so they’re a tough task on both sides of the ball.”
Sophomore Devon Reid, senior Marquis Beasley and junior Eugene Green will be critical for Steel-High in the trenches, while Union will counter with 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior Mark Stanley, Kaden Fisher and Thompson.
“Our focus is to prep to the best of our ability, come out and give max effort,” Erby said. “We always have respect for our opponents and it always comes down to playing on the field. Jersey colors, team names it all goes out the window.
“They have enough firepower on their end where they can beat any team on any day.”
Niedbala, who was defensive coordinator of Mt. Lebanon’s undefeated WPIAL and PIAA Class 6A championship team in 2021, is preparing his team similarly.
“We’ve got 26 guys on the team,” he said, “and we will need all 26 of them.”