Division I talent could help Steel Valley write happier ending to 2022 season

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Friday, August 19, 2022 | 12:01 PM


It’s hard to imagine a more satisfying regular season than the one Steel Valley had last year.

The Ironmen rolled through four nonconference opponents and five Allegheny Conference foes to the tune of a 9-0 record with an aggregate score of 333-50.

Star tailback Nijhay Burt led the WPIAL with 1,812 yards and 31 touchdowns, and quarterback Cruce Brookins was right behind with 842 yards rushing.

Steel Valley was the favorite to win the school’s sixth WPIAL championship.

From there, though, it’s hard to imagine a more unsatisfying conclusion.

In a 28-12 second-round victory over South Side, Burt went down with an ankle injury in a game marred by what Steel Valley’s superintendent called “racial bigotry and unsportsmanlike play.”

Steel Valley lost to Beaver Falls in the semifinals 21-8. After a WPIAL investigation of the South Side game, both teams were ordered to complete cultural training because, in the words of then-WPIAL executive director Amy Scheuneman, “the situation was not good on either end.”

Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo isn’t one to deny the reality of the situation: Burt’s injury was a killer for the Ironmen.

“If we have Nijhay, we’re a totally different team,” he said. “The season ended the way it did, with him injured. He was our main guy. He really got us there. It’s always a team game, but when you lose a player of his caliber, it hurt us in the playoffs.”

Braszo also thinks that with a new season on horizon, it’s time to look forward.

“I think we put it behind us, pretty much,” he said. “Going into the summertime, we had a good summer with good attendance by all the kids. We’re happy with where we’re at. It’s high school ball. You go from one year to the next. It’ll be – not a totally different team – but a different team.”

It won’t be a different quarterback, which is good news for the Ironmen. Brookins, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, ended up with 1,072 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last season. He projects as a defensive back at Kent State but runs Steel Valley’s offense brilliantly.

With junior tailback Quaron Pierce and all-conference senior slotback JeSean Wright returning, Braszo is confident in the playmakers he has back.

Most importantly, though, the team has a talented collection of experienced players up front.

Start with all-conference selection Greg Smith, a 6-5, 315-pound senior headed to Miami (Ohio), and 6-3, 285-pound junior Mike Crist at tackle. Brendan Snyder is also a returning all-conference pick, and senior John Heddleston is a candidate to take over at center.

Angel Herrera, an impact player on defense from his middle linebacker spot, is making the move from guard to H-back on offense.

“We’ve got Cruce, and we’ve pretty much got our line back intact,” Braszo said. “That’s a big plus for us. We should be pretty solid both ways, still running the ball and throwing as well. Cruce can do both. He can throw and run. I think the focal point will be the line. The line’s going to have a good year.”

Steel Valley will look to navigate a revamped Allegheny Conference. Shady Side Academy and Summit Academy are out, replaced by Burrell, Derry, Imani Christian and Yough.

“It could be a rocky conference,” Braszo said. “The good part is you have more conference games. Each game means something. Everybody’s gotta be ready.”

Steel Valley

Coach: Ray Braszo

2021 record: 11-1, 5-0 in Class 2A Allegheny Conference

All-time record: 305-213-12

SCHEDULE

Date, Opponent, Time

8.26 Charleroi, 7

9.2 at Sto-Rox, 7

9.9 Seton-LaSalle, 7

9.16 Imani Christian*, 7

9.23 at Ligonier Valley*, 7

9.30 Apollo-Ridge*, 7

10.7 at Derry*, 7

10.14 at Burrell*, 7

10.21 Yough*, 7

10.28 at Serra Catholic*, 7

*Conference game

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Passing: Cruce Brookins

33-56, 339 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs

Rushing: Nijhay Burt*

156-2,041, 35 TDs

Receiving: JeSean Wright

11-124, TD

*Graduated

FAST FACTS

• Burt is playing his college ball in the Ohio Valley Conference at Eastern Illinois, alma mater of NFL quarterbacks Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo.

• Steel Valley was one of two teams to defeat WPIAL champion Serra Catholic last season, beating the Eagles, 28-7, in the regular-season finale. The other team was Southern Columbia, which topped Serra, 62-25, in the state championship game.

• Steel Valley is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first WPIAL championship in 1982. The Ironmen also won in 1988, 1989, 2016 and 2018.

• Steel Valley went 7-0 at Campbell Field in Munhall last season, outscoring opponents 267-39.

Note: Due to publishing scheduling conflicts, the preview for Allegheny Conference team Serra Catholic will appear on Trib HSSN next week.

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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