When Kim Niedbala left his position as a longtime assistant under legendary coach Bob Palko — first at West Allegheny then at Mt. Lebanon — he didn’t necessarily expect to win a WPIAL title in his first go-around as a head coach at Union.

Then again, he didn’t see any reason why the Scotties couldn’t win the whole thing, either.

With a supremely talented quarterback running the show in Braylon Thomas, Union snuck into the WPIAL playoffs as a No. 10 seed before riding a wave of confidence all the way to a 26-0 beatdown against Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL final and a trip to the PIAA championship game. And although they fell just short of capturing the ultimate prize in the state title game against Steelton-Highspire, it was an unforgettable season for the Scotties — and it could be just the beginning.

“I took bits and pieces from the head coaches that I coached under at Clarion and Edinboro, and same thing with coach Palko,” Niedbala said. “I took stuff from my dad. You kind of mold them all together and you hope that it works, and that’s the biggest thing. And it kind of has.”

No kidding.

With Thomas back for his senior year, expectations are higher than ever before for Union going into the season — and the Scotties know they now have a target on their back. Still, they only finished third in the loaded Big Seven Conference during the regular season in 2022, so making it to the top of the standings this fall is the first item on the agenda before they start thinking about defending their WPIAL crown.

“I know it’s an old cliche, but we were trying to take it one week at a time,” Niedbala said. “We talked about the four weeks of the WPIAL [playoffs], and whatever came after that was just a bonus. It was a great experience for the kids, and that’s all it’s really about.”

As a junior, Thomas (6-2, 190) passed for 1,202 yards and 14 touchdowns while also rushing for a team-high 1,466 yards and 20 additional scores. His top two receivers are also back in the fold in senior Dayne Johnke and junior Maddox Thompson. Thompson led the team with 20 catches for 257 yards last year, while Johnke caught 15 passes for a team-high 297 yards while also earning all-conference honors at defensive back.

Class previews

“Braylon is the guy who makes us go offensively,” Niedbala said. “The great part is, that was his first year starting last year. He’s a second-year starter. Hopefully we improve from year one to year two, but as far as his total athletic ability, he’s a very dynamic player for us.”

Thomas will also be reunited with senior Mike Gunn in the backfield after Gunn (6-1, 200) rushed for 550 yards on 97 carries and also caught 12 passes for 201 yards with 15 total touchdowns last season. Three starters return on the offensive line to help pave the way for Thomas and Gunn — senior Jordan Brown (6-2, 275), senior Robert McCurdy (6-1, 220) and junior Jamel Mitchell (6-3, 245).

Of course, Union’s bread and butter last year was its punishing defense — no surprise with a fiery defensive-minded coach like Niedbala at the helm — and this year should be no different. Gunn, Johnke and Thomas give the Scotties a veteran secondary with elite ball-hawking ability, and running the ball against a Niedbala-coached team is never easy.

Time will tell if Union is able to make a repeat run at a WPIAL title, but there’s no question that every team the Scotties face this year is going to feel it the next morning.

“We have a lot of new kids, we have a lot of turnover. I just want us to play fundamentally sound and play hard,” Niedbala said. “At the end of the day, we’ll try to figure it out as the weeks go on. I just want them to play hard and have fun.”

Union’s Mike Gunn runs with the ball during practice Aug. 8, 2023, at Union’s Socs Roussos Stadium. Gunn tallied 751 yards from scrimmage with 15 TDs in 2022. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After winning the Big Seven Conference title outright last year, Laurel earned a No. 2 seed for the WPIAL playoffs, but the Spartans’ championship hopes were dashed by Union in the WPIAL quarterfinals, 30-28. It will likely be a work in progress this season for Brian Cooper’s bunch, with only one returning starter from last year’s team that finished 6-0 in conference play and 10-2 overall.

Much like Laurel, South Side had a smooth transition from Class 2A to 1A last year, finishing second in the conference behind the Spartans while advancing to the WPIAL semifinals and finishing 11-2 overall. All-conference linemen Chase Knox and J.D. Roy will help form a stout unit up front, and junior Parker Statler is back after leading the Rams with 23 catches for 514 yards to go with 12 touchdowns.

Rochester finished only 5-4 during the regular season and 3-3 in conference play last fall, but the No. 14 seed Rams scored a shocking 36-15 upset in the first round against No. 3 Greensburg Central Catholic, then knocked off No. 6 Fort Cherry before falling to Union in the WPIAL semifinals, 18-16. Junior tailback Antonio Laure is back to lead the charge after rushing for 1,407 yards on 230 carries and catching 16 passes for 260 yards with 26 total touchdowns as a sophomore.

Shenango lost all-conference running back Hunter Lively and standout lineman Kyle Lenhart, but junior quarterback Sam Patton is back after throwing for 753 yards and rushing for 382 with 13 total touchdowns last year.

After ending a 32-game winless streak in 2021, Northgate took another positive step forward with a 4-6 record overall in 2022. Senior Austin Mitchell and junior Sonteon Lane both return for the Flames after splitting time at quarterback last year, but top receiver Lewis Clark is gone after catching 33 passes for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Summit Academy will once again have an uphill climb to get out of the Big Seven Conference basement after finishing 0-6 in conference play and 1-9 overall in 2022.

Black Hills Conference

Two years removed from winning a WPIAL championship, Bishop Canevin is hungry for more hardware after a stunning 26-0 defeat against No. 10 seed Union in last year’s WPIAL title game. Although do-it-all threat Xavier Nelson graduated after racking up 125 receptions for 2,913 yards and 47 touchdowns in his exemplary career, the Crusaders have plenty of firepower returning. Senior Jason Cross is a West Virginia recruit making the switch from quarterback to wideout after passing for 1,302 yards and 18 TDs a year ago, while junior quarterback Kole Olszewski threw for 1,503 yards and 16 TDs. Senior running back Marquis Carter, who ran for 1,563 yards and 11 TDs in 2022, will combine with Olszewski and Cross to form perhaps the most potent offensive trio in Class 1A.

Despite graduating decorated quarterback Nehemiah Azeem, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart should find itself right in the thick of championship contention once again. Coming off an impressive season with 46 catches for 834 yards and nine TDs, senior wide receiver Dereon Greer is one of the top big-play wideouts in the area. Elsewhere, leading rusher Brandon Brazell is back for the Chargers after earning all-conference honors at linebacker, as is his twin brother, all-conference defensive lineman Brady Brazell.

There may not be a more exciting player to watch in the WPIAL this season than Fort Cherry sophomore quarterback Matt Sieg. A four-sport athlete who also excels in baseball, basketball and track, Sieg burst onto the scene as a freshman, passing for 1,221 yards and 11 touchdowns to go with 1,982 yards rushing and 33 TDs on the ground. Oh, and he also led the Rangers to an 8-4 record and a trip to the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Coming off a 6-4 finish in 2022, Burgettstown is looking to make it back to the postseason and string together a deeper run this time around. The Blue Devils are always strong up front, and this year will be no different with all-conference senior Joey Baronick anchoring the line up front. Leading rusher Brodie Kuzior also returns after tallying 664 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.

Cornell will have an uphill climb to get back to the postseason after losing two-way all-conference standouts Raequan Troutman and Cagney Smith to graduation. Leading receiver Drevon Newton will likely see an increase in touches after catching 19 passes for 458 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior.

Jake Mele graduated after capping off his productive career at Chartiers-Houston with 62 catches for 724 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior, leaving a gaping void for the Buccanneers to fill at wide receiver going into 2023. Three-year starting quarterback Terry Fetsko and leading rusher Jessie Orbin are also gone.

Cole “Jaws” Jaworowski is back for his senior season at Avella after leading the team in both passing and rushing yardage in 2022. His top target, Isaiah Bradick, is also back after catching 41 passes for 373 yards as a junior.

Carlynton may be coming off a winless season, but the Cougars will bring back leading rusher Jaydin McKnight and leading receiver Devonte Dean from last year’s team.

Eastern Conference

Senior quarterback Tyree Turner and sophomore receiver Samir Crosby will look to build off last year’s success at Greensburg Central Catholic, which went unbeaten in conference play before a first-round upset playoff loss against No. 14 seed Rochester. Turner passed for 1,601 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Crosby ran for 351 yards on 31 carries and caught 30 passes for 473 yards with 15 total TDs.

One of the premier programs in Western Pennsylvania, Clairton hopes to return to prominence after some slightly subpar seasons by the Bears’ ultra-lofty standards. Senior Mike Wright will take over for all-conference quarterback Capone Jones under center, while senior Martin Lawrence and sophomore Mikey Ruffin are two of his top returning weapons at wideout. Ruffin led the team with 26 catches for 334 yards and also ran for 227 yards on 22 carries as a freshman.

After back-to-back playoff appearances, the Braylan Lovelace era is now over at Leechburg. The Blue Devils will enter into rebuilding mode after graduating Lovelace (a Pitt recruit) along with leading receivers Tyler Foley (35 catches, 626 yards) and Logan Kline (35 catches, 517 yards). Junior quarterback Jayden Floyd provides some hope for the future after passing for 1,360 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

Like Clairton, Jeannette boasts a tradition as rich as any program in the area, but the Jayhawks have fallen on hard times in recent years. After winning a WPIAL championship in 2020, a mass exodus of players led to a 1-9 record in 2021 and an overhaul of the coaching staff. Although they still qualified for the playoffs in Tom Paulone’s first year at the helm, the 3-8 finish is far below the standard for a successful season at the WPIAL’s winningest program. Senior quarterback Payton Molter will have to find a new favorite target after the graduation of productive wideout Noah Sanders (51 receptions, 715 yards), who also led the team with 595 yards rushing along with 13 total TDs.

Freshman Rio Stotts was a much-needed bright spot for Riverview in 2022, leading the team with 12 catches for 239 yards while also rushing for 446 yards on 59 carries. All-conference linebacker Landon Johnson also returns to lead the Raiders’ defensive unit.

Leading receiver and second-leading rusher Keyshaun Thompson is gone, meaning Frazier will need to find a new focal point on offense in order to improve on last year’s 1-9 finish. Sophomore running back Derek Diamond and junior wide receiver Andrew Bandish are two of the most likely candidates.

All-conference senior linebacker Noah Bradley will try to help Springdale climb out of the cellar after a winless season in 2022.

Tri-County South Conference

Mapletown had a historic year last fall, going undefeated in the regular season and advancing to the WPIAL quarterfinals for the first time in program history. But record-setting running back Landan Stevenson is gone after leading the WPIAL with 2,342 yards rushing and 45 touchdowns, and the Maples will need to rebuild from the ground up in order to get back to their winning ways. Senior A.J. Vanata returns to lead the backfield in place of Stevenson after rushing for 732 yards and eight TDs on 106 carries in 2022.

A perennial playoff contender, California will look to make some noise in the postseason this year with senior quarterback Jake Layhue back under center. A dual-threat quarterback who is also a strong wrestler, Layhue (6-4, 205) passed for 1,224 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 943 yards with 13 additional scores last season. Spencer Petrucci will rejoin him in the backfield after tallying 788 yards on the ground with 15 TDs.

Carmichaels had a solid season in 2022, and all-conference receiver Tyler Richmond could be the key to the Mighty Mikes’ success after hauling in 39 passes for 610 yards with 14 touchdowns as a junior. All-conference lineman Bradley Schoenfelt (6-4, 290) also returns.

Class Focus

Tyvaughn Kershaw is back to lead Monessen‘s backfield once again after a breakout freshman campaign in 2022, when he rushed for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns on 119 carries. All-conference senior linebacker Jermere Majors will lead the way on defense for the Greyhounds, who lost a 56-42 shootout to Fort Cherry in the first round of last year’s playoffs.

Junior wide receiver Houston Guessman is a returning all-conference performer who will attempt to build off an impressive sophomore season for Jefferson-Morgan, which just missed out on a playoff bid after a 4-6 finish a year ago.

After graduating quarterback Dominick Revi, leading rusher Tyler Debnar and leading receiver Tyler Berish, Beth-Center will likely undergo some growing pains in year three under 82-year-old head coach Tony Ruscitto.

Coming off a disappointing 2-8 finish in 2022, there’s at least one reason for optimism at West Greene. Senior running back Colin Brady (6-2, 200) is already over 4,000 yards rushing for his career with 56 touchdowns, and he’ll attempt to power the Pioneers back into the playoff picture while ascending up the all-time WPIAL rushing leaderboard.

Like California, Bentworth has a standout wrestler spearheading the offense in senior quarterback Vitali Daniels, who passed for 908 yards and ran for 570 while scoring 19 total touchdowns in 2022.

Union quarterback Braylon Thomas prepares to throw the ball during practice Aug. 8 at Union’s Socs Roussos Stadium. Thomas accounted for 2,668 yards from scrimmage and 34 total TDs a year ago. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Players to watch

Colin Brady, West Greene, 6-2, 200, RB-LB, Sr. — Four-year starter rushed for 1,897 yards and 25 touchdowns a year ago, raising career totals to 4,164 yards rushing with 56 TDs.

Jason Cross, Bishop Canevin, 6-2, 175, WR-DB, Sr. — West Virginia recruit will shift to wide receiver full-time after passing for 2,935 yards and 36 touchdowns over the previous two seasons.

Dereon Greer, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 6-2, 195, WR-DB, Sr. — Speedy playmaker ranked second among all Class 1A receivers with 834 yards and finished third with 46 receptions in 2022.

Matt Sieg, Fort Cherry, 6-1, 180, QB-DB, So. — Four-sport star enjoyed a stellar freshman campaign with 3,203 yards from scrimmage and 44 total touchdowns.

Braylon Thomas, Union, 6-2, 190, QB-DB, Sr. — Dual-threat signal caller passed for 1,202 yards and 14 touchdowns last fall while rushing for 1,466 yards and 20 scores en route to a state championship appearance.


Editor Rick Davis
Reporters Brad Everett, Steve Rotstein, John Santa, Rob Joesbury, Saul Berrios-Thomas
Photographers Emily Matthews, Steve Mellon
Art designer Jennifer Kundrach
Web designer Tyler Pecyna

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.