Happy WPIAL Championship week everyone! First and foremost, we hope you and your families had a wonderful Thanksgiving. But as the turkey settles on Thursday night and Friday morning dawns, we will have a full day of WPIAL Championship action at
Heinz Field Acrisure Stadium. The first WPIAL Champions were crowned last Saturday with Pine-Richland claiming the 5A title and North Allegheny winning the 6A crown. Both of those teams will now enter the state playoffs with North Allegheny taking on a dynamic State College team and Pine-Richland rematching “that all-star team up north” Cathedral Prep who they smoked in the 2020 PIAA Championship. All of Friday’s WPIAL Championship Games and state playoff games will be livestreamed thanks to our friends at the TribLive High School Sports Network.
Friday’s WPIAL Championship Games in 4A, 3A, and 2A all feature the top two seeds in their respective brackets. In 1A, Union became the first double-digit seed to reach a WPIAL final since Central Valley in 2010 and will face top-seeded Bishop Canevin. Proof of the adage that “Defense wins Championships,” 7 of the 8 title game participants rank in the top two in their respective classifications in points allowed. The 4A Championship matches Central Valley’s top-ranked offense (42.3 PPG) against Aliquippa’s top-ranked defense (9.5 PAPG). The Quips offense ranks second in 4A (40.7 PPG) and Central Valley’s defense is just a tick behind Aliquippa’s (10.0 PAPG). Belle Vernon (8.2 PAPG) and Avonworth (9.3 PAPG) are also the top two defenses in 3A. Elizabeth Forward had the highest-scoring offense in 3A, but Belle Vernon (39.1 PPG) and Avonworth (34.1 PPG) were close behind. Steel Valley has the top-ranked offense (44.9 PPG) and defense (7.4 PAPG) in 2A with Beaver Falls (8.2 PAPG) close behind in defensive stinginess. Bishop Canevin also has the top-ranked defense in 1A (8.7 PAPG). Union is the only finalist with an offense averaging below 34 points per game on offense and allowing more than 10 points per game on defense but the Scotties have come up with key plays when needed during their magical run.
Check out this week’s edition of the WPIAL Blitz Show for a breakdown of all the results from last week as well as a preview of this week’s games. We had a great discussion with Josh Carney of the Beaver County Times about the three Beaver County teams (Aliquippa, Central Valley, and Beaver Falls) that will be playing in title games this weekend. Also, be sure to follow our WPIAL Twitter account @WPIAL_Blitz and check out our WPIAL Blitz Facebook Page.
This year, our WPIAL coverage is proudly presented by Sports Solutions Marketing. The Sports Solutions network provides pay per view hosting and broadcasting for high school sporting events. More information is available via EasternPAFootball.com.
4A Championship Game
1. Aliquippa (11-0) vs 2. Central Valley (11-1)
Friday, November 25, 8:00pm
WPIAL Blitz Show 4A Breakdown
How They Got Here
Check out our interview with Josh Carney of the Beaver County Times on this week’s WPIAL Blitz Show for some additional insight into this game. Furthermore, we had the honor of interviewing both Aliquippa Coach Mike Warfield and Central Valley Coach Mark Lyons a few weeks ago on the WPIAL Blitz Show prior to their Week 9 meeting.
Aliquippa is the defending WPIAL and PIAA 4A Champions while Central Valley won three straight 3A WPIAL titles and back-to-back state titles before being moved up to 4A this season. Aliquippa came out strong to start this season, surviving a challenge from a talented Armstrong team in Week 1. From there, the Quips defense took over, holding their next two opponents to negative total yardage. After another hard-fought win over West Allegheny, the Quips offense came alive, scoring 50+ in each of the next four weeks as they rounded into form and dominated their conference competition. That set up a Week 9 showdown with Central Valley. After trailing 24-14 at halftime, the Quips exploded for 21 points in the third quarter to run away with a 35-24 victory and the top seed in the playoffs. In the playoffs, Aliquippa cruised past Montour then crushed McKeesport on the backs of two defensive touchdowns by the tune of 42-7 to reach the Championship Game for the 15th straight season.
Central Valley entered the season riding a 27-game winning streak as the two-time defending State Champions. The Warriors extended that streak to 36 games, mercy ruling their first nine opponents. The only opponent in that run to hold them under 42 points was Avonworth, who is in the 3A finals. Week 9 brought a much-anticipated showdown with rivals Aliquippa. Central Valley lost that game but it didn’t impact their seeding much as the Warriors were given the #2 seed in the bracket. After defeating Laurel Highlands in the quarterfinals, a stout defensive performance pitched their fourth shutout of the year to top Thomas Jefferson in the semis. Central Valley and TJ had built up a short-lived but strong rivalry from 2010-2015 where they met three times in the AAA playoffs. Now, the Warriors have earned a rematch with rivals Aliquippa with the WPIAL title on the line.
These neighboring districts have built up a strong rivalry over the last decade-plus when the merger of Center and Monaca created Central Valley in 2010. They first played in 2016 when the move to six classifications and Aliquippa’s decision to voluntarily play up put them both in the same 3A conference. This will be their 8th meeting since 2016 and the second time the two are playing for a WPIAL Championship. Aliquippa won the first two meetings in 2016 and 2017. After Aliquippa hired former Central Valley assistant Mike Warfield, his mentor Mark Lyons got the better of the next four meetings – including winning the 2019 WPIAL Championship. Central Valley’s four-game winning streak was snapped this year when Aliquippa won the Week 9 showdown to make the all-time series 4-3. (All-time, the Quips had dominated Central Valley’s precursor schools with a 10-6-2 record against Monaca and 26-3-1 record against Center.)
Heinz Field has basically been a second home for these two teams. Aliquippa is appearing in their 15th consecutive Championship Game, a streak dating back to 2008. Since Central Valley was formed in 2010, this will be the 8th Championship Game for the Warriors. The two met in the 2019 WPIAL Championship which was a 6-6 tie at the end of regulation. Central Valley scored a touchdown and made the extra point in overtime. Aliquippa answered with a touchdown and went for two and the win, but the Warriors defense came up with a stop to clinch the title. That was the first of Central Valley’s three straight WPIAL titles in 3A before they moved up to 4A this year. Aliquippa was forced up to 4A a cycle earlier, in 2020, but continued their successful run and defeated Belle Vernon to win the WPIAL title last season. Both teams won State Championships last season, making this a matchup of defending State Champions in the WPIAL title game.
These two schools have combined for 26 WPIAL titles. Aliquippa has won the most Championships of any school with 18, dating back to 1952. This will be the 33rd WPIAL Championship Game for Aliquippa and their 15th consecutive appearance. Their current incredible run started in AA in 2008 and continued in 3A through 2016-2019 and now the last three seasons in 4A. Aliquippa has claimed 6 WPIAL titles and two State titles during that run, the PIAA Championships coming in 2018 (in 3A) and 2021 (in 4A).
Central Valley announced themselves in a big way after the merger of Center and Monaca, winning the 2010 WPIAL Championship. The Warriors would follow up with another title in 2014. The 2019 Championship, which they won by defeating Aliquippa, sparked a three-peat of dominance in the 3A classification. With five WPIAL titles and two runner-up finishes in the last 12 seasons, Central Valley has been one of the most dominant programs in recent history. Central Valley has been to three straight State Championship games, winning the last two over Wyomissing after losing to Wyoming Area in 2019. The Warriors can also historically lay claim to the three WPIAL titles won by Monaca in 1975, 1982, and 1985.
It all starts up front for the Quips. Their massive offensive line, the “Trench Dawgs” has dominated on both sides of the ball all season. Naquan Crowder, Jason McBride, Braylon Wilcox, Nico Eberhardt, Kamari Mathews are all studs on both sides of the ball. Last week both McBride and Crowder scored defensive touchdowns along with recording a safety. The Trench Dawgs have cleared the way for Tiqwai Hayes (1669 yards, 28 TDs) and Jon Tracy (508 yards, 8 TDs). Hayes began accumulating college offers last year as a freshman and has a number of high-major offers including Penn State, Pitt, Michigan, and West Virginia. When the Quips do take to the air, Quentin Goode (1655 yards, 18 TDs) has produced big plays with his arm. The WR/DB tandem of Donovan Walker (584 yards, 5 TDs) and Brandon Banks (370 yards, 6 TDs) are threats to score any time they touch the ball – on either offense or defense. Walker and Banks are two of the top defensive backs in the WPIAL, both with offers from numerous MAC schools. Linebacker Cameron Lindsey and safety Nate Lindsey are also standout players on the Quips defense which holds opponents under 10 points per game. Cam has offers from Penn State, West Virginia, and Syracuse while Nate has a Toledo offer.
Similarly, Central Valley’s success starts up front with their line play. The Warriors’ top three rushers all average over 9 yards per carry. Bret FitzSimmons (1723 yards, 30 TDs) leads the way, complemented by Brandon Singleton (420 yards, 4 TDs). When Central Valley takes to the air, Antwon Johnson has been outstanding, putting up 1315 yards and 16 TDs. Leading receiver Jayvin Thompson (683 yards, 16 total TDs) is also a standout defensive back who has made noise in all three phases of the game. Thompson made a name for himself in the WPIAL title game last year when he had four interceptions. He has offers from Army and Bowling Green. Deniro Simpson has been an all-around playmaker with 253 rushing yards, 209 receiving yards, and 4 total TDs, including one last week against Thomas Jefferson.
3A Championship Game
1. Belle Vernon (9-2) vs 2. Avonworth (11-1)
Friday, November 25, 5:00pm
WPIAL Blitz Show 3A Breakdown
How They Got Here
Belle Vernon moved down from 4A to 3A this season but the WPIAL stacked their non-conference slate with all opponents from higher classifications. Belle Vernon started the season as the top-ranked team in the state and looked the part in a win over Laurel Highlands. However, their next two outings saw them drop tough low-scoring games to 4A McKeesport 14-6 and 5A Penn-Traford 14-13. The Leopards bounced back with a convincing win over Thomas Jefferson, Belle Vernon started conference play with a 2-2 record. Once they finally started playing 3A teams, the Leopards looked every bit as dominant as they were expected to be before the season. In 7 games against 3A opponents, Belle Vernon has averaged 49 points per game. The only 3A team to score more than once against them was Elizabeth Forward in a Week 9 showdown for the conference title.
Avonworth moved up to 3A in 2020 after winning the 2019 WPIAL 2A Championship. The Lopes started the year with a convincing win over Grove City, who wound up winning the District 10 3A Championship. After a loss to Central Valley, Avonworth’s defense shone in a 21-18 victory over an explosive Sto-Rox team. Similar to Belle Vernon, once conference play started they ran away with things. Their only game closer than 21 points was a 14-8 defensive struggle against West Mifflin. Other than that, Avonworth cruised past all of their conference opponents by at least 25 points. In the playoffs they had a conference rematch against Beaver which they won by a 28-7 margin then shut out Shady Side Academy 35-0 in the semifinals. The only teams to score more than once against Avonworth this season were Central Valley, Sto-Rox and Quaker Valley.
Both of these schools are amidst a run of historic success. In the 2000s, Belle Vernon was a perennial playoff team but did not win a playoff game in 11 appearances between a semifinal appearance in 2000 and a first round victory in 2015. Since hiring Matt Humbert in 2014, the Leopards program has evolved from a playoff team to a Championship Contender. Humber is one of the best young coaches in the WPIAL and the only thing missing from his resume is a WPIAL title. Belle Vernon has reached the semifinals in six straight seasons and been to the Championship Game in three of the last four years. They lost to eventual State Champions Thomas Jefferson in 2019 and to eventual State Champions Aliquippa in 2021. Now, moving down from 4A to 3A has set them up for another run to the title game.
While Belle Vernon moved down from 4A to 3A, Avonworth is a growing district. They were a Single-A team in the four classification era before 2016 and were slotted into 2A in the 2016 realignment. Avonworth made just two playoff appearances between 1993 and 2007. In 2008 the Lopes program saw a massive turnaround and started their current run of success. They reached the semifinals in 2008 and 2010 before breaking through to the Championship Game in 2014 (which they lost to Clairton). After the move to 6 classes, Avonworth would put it all together in 2019 and win their first WPIAL title in 60 years. The 2019 season ended with a loss to Southern Columbia in the State Championship game and the Lopes moved up to 3A the following season in 2020.
Both teams can claim two WPIAL titles all-time. This is the 6th WPIAL Championship Game for Belle Vernon and the 4th for Avonworth. Belle Vernon had a run of success in the mid-90s, winning the 1995 WPIAL AAA Championship, defeating Franklin Regional 22-6. Belle Vernon’s 1995 season came to an end with a double overtime loss to Sharon in the State semifinals. The Leopards would make it back to the WPIAL title game in 1996 and 1999 but lost to Blackhawk and West Allegheny. Belle Vernon has reached two of the last three 4A Championship Games, but fell to eventual state champions (Thomas Jefferson and Aliquippa) both times. Belle Vernon can also claim the historical 1962 Class A (which would later become AA) Championship that was shared by Rostraver and Carmichaels. Rostraver was one of the schools which merged to become Belle Vernon. Rostraver and Carmichaels tied 0-0 and in an era before overtime, shared the title.
Avonworth tied Union 13-13 in the 1959 Class B Championship Game. Class B would later be redubbed “Class A” in 1973 when the WPIAL merged with the Pittsburgh Catholic League. Similar to Rostraver’s shared title mentioned above, Avonworth and Union both claim to be 1959 WPIAL Champions. It would be 55 years before Avonworth would make it back to a WPIAL Championship Game. They played on the Heinz Field grass in 2014 in the Class A Championship where they fell to Clairton. In 2019, 60 years after winning the 1959 title, the Lopes won the WPIAL 2A Championship, defeating Washington 28-6. Avonworth defeated Wilmington in the state semifinals to earn a trip to Hershey to face 2A powerhouse Southern Columbia. Overall, both of these schools have a shared WPIAL title from the pre-playoffs era and have both won a title within the last 30 years. They also have recent Championship Game experience.
Belle Vernon’s offense runs through RB Quinton Martin who is one of the top juniors in the state. He already has offers from numerous high-major programs including Penn State, Pitt, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Florida State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Martin leads the Leopards in rushing (1099 yards), receiving (362 yards), and scoring (26 total TDs). He has been complemented in the ground game by fellow junior Jake Gedekoh (618 yards, 16 TDs). Last week in the semifinal win over Freeport, both Martin and Gedekoh ran for over 100 yards and each scored twice. When they do take to the air, Braden Laux (901 yards,9 TDs) generally targets either Martin or Chase Ruokonen (308 yards, 3 TDs).
Avonworth has been a dominant defensive team all season but also have some outstanding playmakers on offense. Quarterback Nate Harper (1403 yards, 18 TDs) leads the way for a Lopes passing attack that has five players with at least 10 catches and 140 yards. Peyton Faulkner (401 receiving yards, 105 rushing yards, 7 total TDs), Andrew Kuban (338 yards, 5 TDs), and Austin Johncour (267 yards, 3 TDs) lead the receiving corps. On the ground, Luke Hilyard (1294 yards, 18 TDs) has been the go-to back with Brandon Biagiarelli (490 rushing yards, 153 receiving yards, 11 total TDs) playing a complementary role. Avonworth has leaned heavily on the ground game in the postseason with Hilyard and Biagiarelli sharing the workload. Last week the Lopes even introduced a new wrinkle with Peyton Faulkner (who has a handful of offers from MAC and FCS schools as a tight end) playing in a wildcat role.
2A Championship Game
1. Steel Valley (11-0) vs 2. Beaver Falls (11-1)
Friday, November 25, 2:00pm
WPIAL Blitz Show 2A Breakdown
How They Got Here
Steel Valley came into the season on a mission to run the ball behind their massive offensive line. They announced themselves as contenders early with a Week 1 victory over Sto-Rox. That game matched Steel Valley’s ground game against Sto-Rox’s passing attack and the Ironmen came out on top 27-24. From there, Steel Valley would score 42+ over their next 7 games to set up a Week 9 showdown with Serra Catholic for the conference title. Steel Valley was held to their second-lowest output of the year but dominated Serra in the trenches to the tune of a 28-0 victory. Over their final 8 regular season games, Steel Valley pitched 4 shutouts and allowed just 27 total points. The offense returned to form in the playoffs, running past McGuffey 46-13 thanks to 6 touchdowns from QB Cruce Brookins. After Neshannock took a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter in the semifinals, Steel Valley exploded for 19 points to wrap up their spot in the Championship Game with a 32-17 victory. The Ironmen now face a Beaver Falls team that knocked them out in the semifinals last year.
Beaver Falls started the year with games against opponents from higher classifications and dropped a rivalry game against Beaver 19-16 in Week 1. The Tigers bounced back and beat all the rest of their opponents by 20+ points. Once conference play rolled around, their only games closer than 30 points were a 22-0 win over Neshannock and a 28-8 win over Freedom. Beaver Falls put up 42+ on all the rest of their conference opponents to enter the playoffs on an 8-game winning streak. In the quarterfinals, they mercy ruled Ligonier Valley in a wild game where a blown transformer at Geneva College caused the game to be moved to nearby Blackhawk after the players were already on the field warming up. In the semifinals, in a rematch of the 2020 Championship Game, Beaver Falls dominated Sto-Rox in the trenches and stifled the Vikings offense for a 54-16 victory to reach their third straight 2A Championship Game.
At least one of these two teams has appeared in six of the seven 2A Championship Games since 2016. Steel Valley made the first three, winning the WPIAL titles in 2016 and 2018. The 2016 “Mercy Boys” team enacted the mercy rule on every opponent en route to winning the WPIAL and State Championship, including statewide powerhouse Southern Columbia in the PIAA finals. Beaver Falls moved down from 3A to 2A in 2020 and has made all three Championship Games since. Beaver Falls also won the 2016 WPIAL and PIAA Championships in 3A. Since the move to six classifications, this will be the fourth WPIAL Championship game appearance for both teams and both have won a State title in that span.
These teams also have some history against each other. This will be the sixth postseason meeting since 2007. Beaver Falls holds a 4-1 series lead, including a victory over Steel Valley in the semifinals last year. These teams met three times in four years between 2007 and 2010 with Beaver Falls winning all three matchups. Steel Valley got revenge in 2015, topping the Tigers in the quarterfinals.
Both teams have won 5 WPIAL titles and one state title in their respective history. Beaver Falls was awarded the WPIAL AA (which would later become AAA) title in 1928 and 1960. In both years, they had more Gardner Points than any other team so a Championship Game was not played and the Tigers were crowned as Champions. Beaver Falls would play in their first WPIAL Championship Game in 1978, losing to Knoch. In 1984 the Tigers won their first Championship Game, defeating Riverside. It would be 27 years before Beaver Falls would make it back to the WPIAL finals, falling to Washington in the inaugural Championship Games at Heinz Field in 2001. The Tigers lost in Championship Games in consecutive seasons to the Terrelle Pryor Jeannette team in 2007 and to Aliquippa in 2008, the year that started the Quips incredible run of 15 straight title games. Eight years later, the Tigers would get revenge on the Quips and win the 2016 3A Championship, propelling them on a run to the State title. Beaver Falls won the 2020 WPIAL Championship over Sto-Rox then fell in the title game to Serra Catholic last year.
Steel Valley was one of the dominant teams of the 1980s, winning three WPIAL Championships in the decade. The Ironmen won the AAA Championship in 1982, defeating Aliquippa 10-0. After moving down to AA in the mid-80s, Steel Valley did not miss a beat, winning back-to-back titles in 1988 and 1989. The Ironmen defeated Center 6-0 in 1988 and Freeport 20-14 in 1989. Steel Valley lost in the semifinals if the State playoffs in 1989. The next decade brought a downturn for the program and Steel Valley would go 24 years without a trip to the WPIAL semifinals. The move to six classifications opened the door for the Ironmen, who dominated the first few years of 2A in the WPIAL, winning the 2016 and 2018 Championships and losing in the finals in 2017. Steel Valley was the top seed in the playoffs last year, but an injury to their star running back saw their run come to an end in the semifinals against Beaver Falls.
For both of these teams, success starts up front with their line play. Steel Valley has a D1 offensive tackle in Greg Smith, a Miami (Ohio)-commit. The Ironmen line has been so dominant that their top five rushers all average over 10 yards per carry! Steel Valley’s attack is led by Kent State-commit QB Cruce Brookins (711 passing yards, 7 TDs, 1454 rushing yards, 31 TDs). Brookins has been recruited as a safety and has been the catalyst for Steel Valley on both sides of the ball. In addition to Brookins, Donald Barksdale (846 yards, 14 TDs), Quaron Pierce (614 yards, 3 TDs), Jesean Wright (406 rushing yards, 184 receiving yards, 6 total TDs), and Da’ron Barksdale (293 yards, 5 TDs) are all outstanding runners. Brookins doesn’t throw often, but when he does he has targeted Wright and Makhai Valentine (355 yards, 6 TDs).
Beaver Falls’ offense also runs through their dual-threat quarterback but is more balanced between rushing and passing. This will be the third WPIAL Championship game for QB Jaren Brickner who has thrown for 1775 passing yards and 15 TDs and run for 652 yards and 14 TDs. Trey Singleton has emerged as a dynamic threat with 1022 receiving yards, 342 rushing yards, and 20 total TDs. In last week’s win over Sto-Rox, Singleton ran for 3 TDs and had a pick-six. Beaver Falls will work in as many as seven different players in their rushing attack – and all seven have over 150 yards on the season. In addition to Brickner and Singleton, Brixx Rawl (474 yards, 5 TDs), Drey Hall (371 yards, 6 TDs), Datalian Beauford (294 yards, 4 TDs), Michael Blackshear (239 yards, 2 TDs), and Kenny Jewell (151 yards, 1 TD) have all had opportunities this season. When not throwing to Singleton, Da’Sean Anderson (351 yards, 6 TDs) has also been a threat. One other player to watch out for is last year’s leading rusher Isaiah Aeschbacher who found the end zone last week after missing some time earlier this season.
1A Championship Game
1. Bishop Canevin (12-1) vs 10. Union (10-3)
Friday, November 25, 11:00am
WPIAL Blitz Show 1A Breakdown
How They Got Here
Bishop Canevin is the defending WPIAL 1A Champions who returned almost all of their lineup from last season’s team that fell to Redbank Valley in the state semis. The Crusaders challenged themselves to start the year in the Chambersburg Peach Bowl Showcase by taking on a Steelton-Highspire team that was one of the top ranked 1A teams in the state. In a close game, Canevin fell 21-14 as they couldn’t punch in the tying touchdown before the clock expired. Once they returned to WPIAL play the crusagers dominated the competition. They scored 30+ against all of their 1A opponents and defeated 2A quarterfinalist Keystone Oaks by a 20-7 margin. The Crusaders stout defense pitched 4 shutouts in 7 conference games to roll into the playoffs as the top seed. After a tight first quarter against Jeannette, Canevin stepped up the intensity and ran away with a 63-14 victory. Their defense was strong again in a 29-6 quarterfinal win over Clairton, the only 1A team that held the Crusaders under 30 points. In the semis, Canevin topped South Side Beaver thanks to an outstanding performance by QB Jason Cross with 4 passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.
It has been a storybook season for Union who are appearing in the WPIAL Championship for the first time since 1973. The Scotties made a coaching change this offseason as long-time coach and Lawrence County Hall of Famer Stacy Robinson took the job at neighboring New Castle. Union hired former Mt. Lebanon defensive coordinator Kim Niedbala, whose father won 3 WPIAL titles as the coach at Western Beaver. Union’s season started with their game against Mohawk being cancelled because of a hazing investigation at Mohawk, but the Scotties went out and brought in eventual District 4 Champions (and the current top-ranked 1A team in the state) Canton to play. Union battled Canton to a 31-19 defeat but showed they could hang with one of the top-ranked teams in the state. The Scotties proved to be a tough customer in conference play, taking conference champs Laurel to overtime (losing 28-22) and topping Rochester on a late fourth quarter touchdown 6-0. That put Union in position to contend for a second place finish, but they suffered their only blowout loss of the season against South Side Beaver. In the playoffs, the Scotties stormed past Burgettstown to earn a rematch with Laurel. This time they came out on top 30-28, recovering an onside kick to seal the win and reach the semis for the first time since 1979. In a rematch with Rochester, it was another defensive struggle and a fourth quarter 58-yard touchdown scamper by Braylon Thomas on 3rd and 17 was the decisive score, giving the Scotties an 18-16 victory.
Both of these teams experienced low points recently and are fantastic rebound stories. Bishop Canevin bottomed out with a 1-win season in 2019. The Crusaders started to turn things around brick by brick during the COVID-shortened season of 2020. Last year, their young roster broke through and won their first WPIAL Championship since 1990. Similarly, Union had a 1-win season in 2014 and low roster numbers prompted the district to discuss a potential of exploring a co-op in football with one of their fellow Lawrence County schools. Union would return to the playoffs in 2017 and reach the quarterfinals, which was just their second playoff victory since 1979. The following seasons were 3-win campaigns, followed by 4-win seasons the last two years. Despite winning 2 conference games last year they finished in last place in the conference because of tiebreakers. This run to the title games marks an incredible turnaround for the Scotties – going from last place in the Big Seven Conference to the WPIAL final in one season.
This is the fourth Championship Game appearance for Bishop Canevin and the third for Union. Canevin’s first title game appearance was in 1983 when they lost to Jeannette in the WPIAL AA finals. Bishop Canevin won the 1990 WPIAL AA Championship, defeating Washington 21-20. The Crusaders would go on to reach the State Championship game and fall to Hanover 20-19 in overtime. Bishop Canevin also won the 2021 WPIAL Championship, dominating OLSH 42-7. That victory was followed by a loss to Redbank Valley in the state playoffs. Union is appearing in the WPIAL Championship for the third time in their school history. The Scotties tied Avonworth 13-13 in the 1959 Class B (which would later become Class A) Championship Game. Since there was no overtime, both teams are remembered as WPIAL Champions. In 1973, Union lost to Springdale 20-14 in the Class A (which would become AA) Championship Game. Bishop Canevin is the defending 1A Champions, and their 2021 title was their first since 1990. Union is appearing in their first Championship Game since 1973.
The Crusaders have used both Kole Olszewski (1373 yards, 16 TDs) and Jason Cross at quarterback. Cross, who has D1 offers as a safety (from Penn State, Akron, and Kent State), has been impactful all over the field. Cross has 1277 passing yards (and 18 TDs), 289 rushing yards, 174 receiving yards, and 12 total TDs. In the semifinal win over South Side Beaver, Cross threw 4 touchdown passes and ran for another score. Last year’s 1A Player of the Year Xavier Nelson (1230 yards, 22 total TDs) leads the receiving corps and is a threat to score any time he touches the ball on offense, defense, or special teams. Nelson had two receiving touchdowns and a pick-six last week, all over 50-yard plays. Lasae Lacks (360 yards, 4 TDs) and Jayden Lindsey (336 yards, 4 TDs) have also contributed to the receiving corps with Lacks putting up over 100 yards and 2 TDs last week. Leading rusher Marquis Carter (1545 yards, 11 TDs) is an explosive back, capable of taking it to the house any time he finds a gap. Carter ran for 250 yards in the quarterfinals against Clairton.
Union has relied heavily on dual-threat QB Braylon Thomas who has thrown for 1048 yards and 10 TDs and run for 1375 yards and 17 TDs. Last week, with their backs against the wall trailing 16-12 and facing a 3rd and 17 in the fourth quarter, Thomas flashed his track speed and took a QB keeper up the gut, racing 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. While the offense runs through Thomas, he has been complemented in the backfield by Mike Gunn (451 rushing yards, 183 receiving yards, 12 total TDs). Additionally, Matt Stanley (346 rushing yards, 103 receiving yards, 3 total TDs) and Andrew Cartwright (264 yards, 5 TDs) have been factors in the Scotties running game. When Thomas does take to the air, Union’s top receivers have been Dayne Johnke (225 yards, 3 TDs) and Maddox Thompson (210 yards, 2 TDs). Union’s defense has been sound all season and the Scotties are battle-tested, having played a number of close games this year.