CLARION, Pa. – Two teams that mirror each other in many ways will square off on Friday, as District 9 champion Port Allegany meets WPIAL champ Union in the PIAA Cass 1A semifinals at Clarion’s Memorial Stadium (7 p.m.).
The winner will advance to play the winner of the Canton/Steel-High game (Friday, 7 p.m., Shamokin H.S.) in the state title game at 1 p.m. Dec. 8 at Cumberland Valley H.S. in Mechanicsburg.
To say that both teams have gotten it done with defense would be an understatement.
Port Allegany (12-1) held Reynolds to just eight points in their 42-8 quarterfinal win. To put that in perspective, the Raiders had scored at least 42 points in nine of their 12 games. They also put the clamps on Jalen Wagner, Reynolds’ career and single-season rushing leader.
“We play a heck of a schedule against a lot of really well-coached teams,” said Port Allegany coach Justin Bienkowski. “There is so much athleticism in our region. that has helped prepare us.”
By the same token, Union (11-3) completely shut down top-seed and defending champion Bishop Canevin, 26-0 to capture its first outright WPIAL title. Canevin, which lost to Redbank Valley in the semifinal round a year ago, had been averaging 42 points per game during its 12-game winning streak.
“It’s a different season, obviously,” said Union coach Kim Niedbala of the playoffs. “I think for us this year, with this being my first year, I really didn’t know what to expect. We have 26, 27 kids and we really didn’t know what we had until probably our second full game. We’ve kind of molded ourselves into what we are now.”
Offensively, the Gator defense has another stiff test on its hands, and it starts with Union quarterback Braylon Thomas, who rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns and also threw for 80 yards against Canevin.
Thomas has rushed for 1,521 yards and 20 touchdowns this season while throwing for 1,069 yards with 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Mike Gunn has rushed for 417 yards and also has 210 yards receiving.
“Their quarterback (Thomas) is as athletic as anyone we’ve seen all year,” Bienkowski said. “He’s very savvy. Number 44 (Mark Stanley) is tough as hell. For us, defensively, we have to team tackle and compress their running lanes. We can’t allow their jet sweeps or quarterback runs. We have to minimize their gains. We want to force him (Thomas) to run laterally and run backward. We want to be consistent and stay within ourselves.”
That task will be led by Blaine Moses, who has 132 tackles, as well as Miska Young, who has five sacks, and Nick Wilfong and Drew Evens, who have five interceptions apiece.
The Scotties’ defense has given up 16 points or fewer in four of its last five games.
In fact, it was a pair of defensive touchdowns that sealed the game against Canevin in the third quarter, as Stanley had a 28-yard fumble return and Gunn a 59-yard interception return.
They will be charged with slowing down a Port Allegany attack led by the rushing duo of Noah Archer and Mosses behind a strong offensive line, as well as the steady quarterback play of Evens.
Moses (1,099 yards, 20 touchdowns) and Archer (954 yards, 12 touchdowns) have combined for over 2,000 yards rushing.
Evens, meanwhile, has thrown for 1,365 yards, completing 59.5 percent of his passes with an 11-6 touchdown to interception ratio. Archer (742 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Peyton Stiles (361 yards, 1 TD) are his top receivers.
“Offensively, we need to stick to what we do,” Bienkowski said. “We hunker down with Blaine and Noah behind our line and Drew’s ability to run. We’ve shown that we can spread it out and condense it to run and pass.”
Niedbala had high praise for the Gator offense as well.
“They’re a big, physical football team,” Niedbala said. “Their offensive line and defensive line are very good. The quarterback is a very experienced player who can throw and run it. Sixteen (Moses) makes them go, he does a little bit of everything, and they’ve got a couple of special athletes in 20 (Archer) and 3 (Stiles).”
For Bienkowski, it’s been all about doing things the right way for his team to get to this point.
“Port Allegany football is not going anywhere,” Bienkowski said. “It’s built the right way. It’s all about the kids, coaches, and the community.”
For Niedbala, he’s sure his players have thought about playing for a state championship.
“They’re kids, I’m sure they have,” Niedbala said. “Once we won WPIAl, we took our time, watched film and we had to flip the page. We have an opponent in Port Allegany that we’re focused on, just taking it one step at a time.”
NOTES: Only three District 9 teams have ever advanced to the PIAA title game. In addition to Redbank Valley last year, Smethport went in 1992 and Keystone in 1989. A D9 team has never won a D9 championship … Port Allegany is in the semifinals for the second time in school history having lost to Clairton, 44-12, in 2012 … Union has never been to the PIAA semifinals, and, in fact, won just its second-ever WPIAL title this year. The other was a shared title in Class 1A with Avonworth … This marks the first time since 2003-2005 that D9 has had a team in the semifinals in back-to-back years. Bradford lost in 3A in 2003, Curwensville lost in 1A in 2004, and Coudersport lost in 1A in 2005 … District 9 is 3-11 all-time in semifinal games including 3-10 in Class 1A.
DISTRICT 9 TEAMS IN PIAA SEMIFINALS
2021 – Class 1A: Redbank Valley 23, Bishop Canevin 14
2013 – Class 1A: North Catholic 30, Clarion 12
2012 – Class 1A: Clairton 44, Port Allegany 12
2007 – Class 1A: Serra Catholic 48, Kane 21
2005 – Class 1A: Duquesne 33, Coudersport 2
2004 – Class 1A: Rochester 20, Curwensville 12
2003 – Class 3A: Pine-Richland 37, Bradford 7
1998 – Class 1A: Rochester 41, Smethport 6
1995 – Class 1A: Farrell 14, Smethport 0
1992 – Class 1A: Smethport 6, Rochester 0
1991 – Class 1A: Rochester 29, Smethport 20
1990 – Class 1A: Farrell 63, Smethport 14
1989 – Class 1A: Keystone 15, Clairton 14
1988 – Class 1A: Cambridge Springs 12, East Brady 6