Avoiding slow start key as Steel Valley aims for return to playoffs

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Friday, September 4, 2020 | 10:52 PM


Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, the Steel Valley football team needed some time to get its bearings at the start of last season.

The core players who led the Ironmen to three consecutive WPIAL Class 2A title games — including championship seasons in 2016 and ‘18 — had moved on. Coach Ray Braszo, in the first year of his second stint at Steel Valley, needed some time to implement strategy and fit players into the right positions.

Instead, the season-opening schedule was brutal.

Steel Valley faced three eventual playoff teams, including undefeated WPIAL champion Avonworth, in the first three weeks of the year. By the middle of September, the Ironmen were 0-3 and reeling a bit.

“After that, it was a tough road all the way down because it was hard to make up those games,” Braszo said. “You had your three losses. You sort of had to hope for the other teams to lose. It was all up to the other teams. We were in our first year and it was just an uphill battle the whole time.”

The success the team had in recent years set the program’s standards extraordinarily high, and sometimes, that can be a curse as much as a blessing.

“Off the bat, trying to build the team to believe in us, some of the kids that were back, our leadership was probably not as great at that point,” Braszo said. “We had a young team coming into it. A lot of kids were gone. We just had to build from the bottom up, even though they had all that success.”

The Ironmen did build, rebounding to win four of their next five games. It wasn’t enough to give them a playoff berth, but it did build some momentum within the program.

“I think that we definitely were playing better and we were way more organized as a team,” Braszo said. “It started to settle down a lot more for us. Our numbers weren’t real high and we had problems building a lineup, but we definitely played better and had a lot more fun toward the end of the year.”

Adding to the program’s momentum, a handful of top players in key spots return for Steel Valley.

That starts with junior Nijhay Burt, who ran for 730 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as the team’s feature back in the I-formation.

“He’s really a good, tough runner and a really tough defensive player,” Braszo said. “He’s started since the ninth grade. We’re going to build around him. We’re excited about that.”

The Ironmen also have experience at the quarterback position with senior Ronnell Lawrence returning.

“Those are obviously two positions you want to have experience back,” Braszo said. “We’re looking forward to those guys leading our offense.”

Lawrence will have a handful of familiar faces to throw to as well, with tight end Inenella Leonard and receivers Nyzair Burt and Ahmir Culmer returning.

Steel Valley started a pair of freshmen on the offensive line last season. The duo — Nyron Foy and big tackle Greg Smith — survived the baptism by fire and return as sophomores with starting experience.

Guard Robert Fowler is the senior leader on the line.

“We have something to build on up front,” Braszo said. “We don’t have a lot of linemen, so hopefully no one gets injured, but everyone always has that problem. Those three guys should lead our linemen.”

Schedule

Coach: Ray Braszo

2019 record: 4-5, 3-3 in Class 2A Allegheny Conference

All-time record: 293-207-12

Date, Opponent, Time

9.11, at Serra Catholic*, 7

9.18, Keystone Oaks, 7

9.25, at Brentwood, 7

10.2, at Ligonier Valley*, 7

10.17, at Shady Side Academy*, 3

10.23, Apollo-Ridge*, 7

*Class 2A Allegheny Conference game

Statistical leaders

Passing: Ronnell Lawrence

26-75, 272 yards, 3 TDs

Receiving: Nyzair Burt

10-146 yards, 2 TDs

Rushing: Nijhay Burt

109-730 yards, 10 TDs

Fast facts

• Steel Valley is one of 11 schools to win more than one WPIAL football championship in the 2010s. The others were North Allegheny, Central Catholic, Pine-Richland, Gateway, Thomas Jefferson, Central Valley, West Allegheny, South Fayette, Aliquippa and Clairton.

• Last year was the first time Steel Valley missed the playoffs since 2013.

• Steel Valley went 3-1 at home last season with the only loss coming to Avonworth. The Ironmen went 1-4 on the road.

• Coach Ray Braszo is entering the second season of his second stint at Steel Valley. He went 26-14 from 2006-09.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review Assistant Sports Editor. You can contact Jonathan by email at jbombulie@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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