In unfamiliar underdog role, Beaver Falls to take its shot at dethroning powerful Steel Valley

Wednesday, November 22, 2023 | 4:03 PM

When Beaver Falls takes the field for its second consecutive championship game appearance against Steel Valley on Friday after falling 34-14 to the Ironmen a year ago, the Tigers will be playing with a completely different mindset.

Beaver Falls entered this postseason as the No. 10 seed in Class 2A, much different than obtaining the second seed last year and the fifth seed the year prior. Both of those seedings, however, saw the Tigers come up just short in the title game.

“When you are a higher seed and there’s expectations, it does weigh on kids,” Beaver Falls coach Nick Nardone said. “We’ve gone into every game this year loose, just trying to play ball and keep this season going and it’s definitely made a difference.

“We let two slip away the past two years, so they are excited to be back in this game and have the opportunity to play for a championship,” he added.

With the underdog approach, Beaver Falls knocked off second-seeded Neshannock and No. 3 Washington in back-to-back weeks.

As Beaver Falls returns to Acrisure Stadium for the fourth consecutive season, all that stands in its way is last year’s kryptonite.

In the 2022 championship tilt between the programs, then-senior Cruce Brookins made a statement for Steel Valley with 170 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Joining Brookins was Donald Barksdale, who came up huge on defense with a 53-yard pick-six and pitched in a 6-yard score on the ground to help the Ironmen lift gold for the first time since 2018.

Heading into this championship matchup, Barksdale will remain in the spotlight for the Ironmen.

“He likes to shine in the big games, and he does,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said.

Barksdale has rushed for 1,965 yards this season, adding on 34 touchdowns. In the semifinals against Mohawk, he rushed for 254 yards and two scores, along with a 52-yard pick-six and a 70-yard touchdown pass.

“We got Barksdale loose,” Braszo said about his semifinal performance. “He does pretty much everything.”

Nardone is accustomed to seeing the junior and his playmaking ability and knows that it will be difficult to restrict his production.

“I don’t know if you can limit what he can do,” Nardone said. “You can try your best to contain him. He’s a tremendously gifted athlete. We just have to contain him and tackle him when he gets out in space.”

Beaver Falls will counter Steel Valley’s strong ground attack with its own led by Da’Talian Beauford, who has rushed for 1,417 yards and 19 scores.

Beauford was counted on to make the biggest play of the season for the Tigers against Neshannock in the quarterfinals as he crossed the goal line for a 2-point conversion for a 14-13 win to keep the Tigers’ Cinderella run alive.

“We’ve been put in some situations where a lot of teams would pack it in and say its over, but these kids are resilient and they’ve been fighting hard and have never quit in games no matter the score,” Nardone said.

Not only will the Tigers have Beauford at their disposal, but Michael Blackshear, Da’Sean Anderson and Brixx Rawl will also get touches on the ground.

“We had three guys score touchdowns on Friday, and I feel like this is the most well-rounded teams I’ve ever coached where we can put the ball in everybody’s hands and we trust them to make plays,” Nardone said.

Both coaches know what to expect when the teams meet for the second-straight championship bout.

“(Beaver Falls) prefers smashmouth football,” Braszo said. “Both teams are going to try to get their running game going and play strong defense.”

“We are familiar with them. They are familiar with us,” Nardone added. “Two hard-nosed, tough teams. It’ll come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes and play good defense.”

Steel Valley and Beaver Falls are turning towards their defenses to be the difference makers.

“Our defense has been playing well all year,” Braszo said. “We try to play mistake free and make the other team earn everything.”

Just as the Ironmen turn the ball over very little, Beaver Falls has struggled with holding onto the ball. Yet the Tigers have capitalized on their own big plays on defense.

“We hate to keep giving other teams opportunities, but I love how opportunistic our team has been in terms of forcing turnovers and making plays on special teams and offense and defense,” Nardone said. “We feel like if we eliminate our own mistakes, we can give ourselves a chance to win any game.”

Last year marked Braszo’s first championship as a head coach. In his 35th season, even as the top seed, Braszo shares a similar feeling as Nardone’s bunch does. He won’t feel the weight of trying to win his first title on his shoulders while standing on the sideline Friday.

“It meant a lot,” Braszo said as he reflected on last year’s win. “I was there three times before and didn’t win. You feel a lot of pressure, you want to win a championship for yourself, for you team. At least this year, we can do it, I’ve done it.”

Steel Valley is searching for its seventh WPIAL title, while Beaver Falls will look for its sixth championship.

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