Pittsburgh, PA– One of the most important facets of building a winning football program is establishing an identity and buying into it. When head coach Ray Braszo took over Steel Valley as the head coach in 2019, he did just that. While it did not bare out to be a success in his first two seasons, you saw the growth last year as Steel Valley went to the WPIAL semifinals.
On Friday, Steel Valley won the WPIAL-2A championship behind an identity built on running the ball and playing tough run defense. Steel Valley ran the football 31 times for 274 yards in a 34-14 win over Beaver Falls. On the flip side, they halted Beaver Falls to 100 rushing yards on 42 attempts.
“It is the strength of our team,” said Braszo of the ability to run the football and stop the run.
“We have a lot of aggressive kids; I think they’d all rather play defense than offense. It is probably why we are also strong in the running game. It is physical, and we have a physical team.”
Steel Valley did not complete a pass. Cruce Brookins was 0-2 as a passer, but it did not matter. He had 17 rushes for 183 yards, and three touchdowns, showing why he was the leader at quarterback.
“Our line is dominant, we dominate the run game, so if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?” asked Brookins after hearing his team won with zero completions. “We just kept running it and they couldn’t stop us.”
Still, despite the reputation of a team that will punch you in the mouth with the run game, they are as explosive as any offense in the WPIAL. They averaged 44 points per game and eclipsed 40 points eight times. Steel Valley converted rushing touchdowns of 56, 56, and 53 yards in their WPIAL championship win. They throw the haymaker as well as anyone.
“Some people throw long passes, some people have long runs,” said Braszo with a smile when discussing how the team stays explosive despite being one-dimensional. “That’s how we have been winning, certain players, they go through the line, and they’re gone.”
Cruce Brookins is one of those players. He started things with a 56-yard touchdown on the second play of the game. It set the tone for what was about to happen. Beaver Falls had a strong bounce back, but Brookins immediately scored on a 53-yard run two plays after Beaver Falls took the lead.
“We were either tackling them in the backfield or they were bursting one,” said Beaver Falls head coach Nick Nardone. “(Brookins) is a great athlete, there is a reason he is getting all of the accolades he is getting.”
It is fun to have a rushing attack that can score from anywhere on the field, but when you combine it with the Ironman defense, you have a scary combination. Steel Valley caused four turnovers. One of the biggest was a pick-six by Donald Barksdale that turned the game from 13-8, to 20-8, which was the last time Beaver Falls was within one score.
“Donald saved us last week, we were losing to Neshanock and he had an 82-yard touchdown,” said Braszo on his linebacker’s ability to create huge plays. “After that one today we started to feel pretty good.”
They added another interception and two fumble recoveries to help shut down Beaver Falls. Steel Valley had four shutouts this season and allowed 20 points just once. They held Beaver Falls, who was averaging 39 points per game, to just 14.
With names like Barksdale in the middle, and Brookins as a deep safety, they are deep at multiple levels. Still, they are at their best upfront. Brendan Snyder and Gregory Smith make up their two defensive tackles, and they are a scary combination of power and speed.
With a two-score lead, the defensive line was able to start attacking up field. That is when you saw the Division-1 talent Gregory Smith take the game over. Smith had multiple tackles for loss, as well as 1.5 sacks. He helped the Ironmen dominate the line.
“As far as speed, and power, man, today, he took it to them,” said Braszo on the performance that Smith had. “We told him today it will be won on the line because that is how we lost last year. We couldn’t move them, they stopped us up front, and we didn’t get anywhere.”
The performance today speaks to the difference a year makes. Beaver Falls returned most of their line, but Steel Valley was another year committed to their identity, and all of a sudden, they were the stronger unit, and the one playing a dominant style.
It took Braszo four years to build the program, set the identity, and see the outcomes of a team that is fully bought in. Now, Steel Valley is hoping to take this dialed-in team to a state championship, something they have not done since 2016.
They will take on the winner of Farrell, and Westinghouse in the PIAA semifinals next week.