Amid coaching controversy, Steel Valley opens playoffs with win over McGuffey

Tuesday, February 21, 2023 | 2:30 AM

Whenever Steel Valley’s Makhai Valentine glanced into the stands Monday night, he wasn’t looking for friends or family. That’s where his suspended head coach was sitting, five rows behind the team’s bench.

Dale Chapman can’t coach the Ironmen in the playoffs, but he can attend their games and offer encouragement.

“This is a weird situation,” said Valentine, who scored a game-high 21 points and led No. 1 seed Steel Valley to a 67-44 victory over No. 16 McGuffey in a WPIAL Class 3A first-round game. The Ironmen had only a three-point lead at halftime before pulling away with a strong third quarter.

Chapman’s suspension was the result of a Feb. 3 incident where Valentine took a hard fall in a game, was checked for a concussion and reinserted into the game.

“With my coach being gone, I just filled the void,” said Valentine, a senior and one of the WPIAL’s leading scorers. “I’m happy that I was able to lead my team, now that my coach couldn’t.”

So, too, did Steel Valley interim coach Lauren Varacalli, an assistant under Chapman the past eight seasons. A former Oakland Catholic player for coach Suzie McConnell-Serio, Varacalli is working to keep Chapman’s absence from becoming a season-ending distraction for the WPIAL favorites.

Steel Valley hasn’t won a WPIAL basketball title since 2002.

“Chap is part of our team. He’s part of the family,” Varacalli said. “He’s always going to be part, whether he’s standing on the sideline or five rows back. The guys accept that.”

Varacalli also coached the team’s final two regular-season games. When the Ironmen headed to the locker room Monday with a slim 27-24 halftime lead, she told them there was no time for excuses. Besides the coaching situation, the team also showed some rust after not playing for a week.

“I just challenged them,” Varacalli said. “We were on our home floor. I wasn’t ready to go home, so I told them they had two options: Turn it up a notch or go home. They stepped up to the challenge.”

Steel Valley freshman Nahjir Norris scored 18 points with three 3-pointers, and sophomore Nate Yuhas added 14 points, including 11 after halftime. Their second-half shots created room for Valentine, who’d made only two baskets in the first half.

“The youngins, they hit the shots that we needed,” Valentine said. “They’d seen that I was kind of in a box. They saw that I couldn’t get to where I needed to go, so they helped me pave the way.”

Steel Valley (13-9) advanced to face No. 9 Seton LaSalle (12-10) in a quarterfinal Thursday at a site and time to be announced. But they’ll do so without Chapman, who is expected to miss the entire postseason, even though Chapman has said he’s confident Valentine didn’t sustain a concussion in that Feb. 3 game at Sto-Rox.

“Makhai got undercut and landed hip, shoulder and head — in that order,” Chapman said. “He was on the ground. He never lost consciousness. He answered all the questions, got up on his own and walked to the bench.”

Chapman said Valentine was evaluated by a Sto-Rox trainer, and insisted no one told him Valentine must sit out. Instead, Chapman said Sto-Rox’s superintendent “suggested” Valentine sit out, and when Chapman put him back in the game, the superintendent later notified Steel Valley’s administration, which suspended the coach for the playoffs.

“Disappointing is the least of what I would say,” said Chapman, noting that all WPIAL and PIAA coaches must be certified in concussion protocols.

“Makhai did not have a concussion,” he added. “He was checked out at our next practice, and this was before I knew there was an email (from Sto-Rox). He actually scored higher than his baseline test.”

Valentine scored 33 points in the team’s first game after his fall.

“We had to win our section championship without him, so that was bittersweet,” Valentine said. “Hearing that we wouldn’t have him for the rest of the year, we all got together and focus on who’s in that locker room.”

Valentine went 9 for 9 from the foul line Monday night and punctuated the second half with a couple of powerful dunks. He had a steal and breakaway dunk early in the fourth quarter, and later finished a reverse dunk that pushed the lead to 23 points.

Steel Valley is trying to add a WPIAL basketball title to the football title it won in the fall. The Ironmen lost seven of their first eight games this winter while making the transition but have won 12 of 14 games since Christmas.

Varacalli chose words stronger than “disappointed” to describe Chapman’s absence.

“Crushed and devastated,” she said. “He’s a big part of this program. He literally built what we have. We’ve been here eight years and I’ve been with him since the start. When we go on a run — hopefully we do — it’s for him. He deserves to be coaching.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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