In the midst of a monsoon that fittingly swept through Western Pennsylvania on the second Friday night of the WPIAL playoffs — officially signifying the shift into what is affectionately known as “football weather” for the rest of the season — a coach’s offensive playbook gets considerably smaller.
Fortunately for Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo, three plays are all his team really needs.
The offensive game plan for the undefeated Ironmen was pretty simple in a 46-13 Class 2A quarterfinal win vs. McGuffey — Cruce Brookins run left, Cruce Brookins run middle and Cruce Brookins run right. It worked to the tune of 332 yards rushing and six touchdowns for Brookins, a dual-threat quarterback and hard-hitting safety who is the tone-setter on defense and game-changer on offense for the WPIAL’s most dominant team in 2022.
“That was my best game by far,” said Brookins, a Kent State recruit. “It was crazy, but I used to play in that [weather] as a kid outside. Me and my friends used to play in that all the time.
“I didn’t even realize [how many yards I had]. I was just trying to win.”
One of two undefeated teams left in the WPIAL, Steel Valley now carries a perfect record into the WPIAL semifinals for the second year in a row — and the Ironmen have unfinished business to attend to. Their season came to an end this time last year while playing without leading rusher and scorer NiJhay Burt, who sustained a season-ending injury in the quarterfinal round. Brookins was the Robin to Burt’s Batman last year, but there’s no question he’s the star of the show this season. With 1,380 yards rushing and 29 TDs in only nine games, the 6-2, 185-pound senior is doing it all for the No. 1 seed in Class 2A.
“He’s just a super athlete,” Braszo said. “He really works at his craft. That’s what makes him so good.”
Brookins and his Steel Valley teammates received a rather notable shoutout last week, when NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted a short video on Twitter wishing the Ironmen luck ahead of their WPIAL quarterfinal matchup. Jackson, a 15-year NFL veteran and three-time Pro Bowler who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens, is a distant cousin of Brookins. He is regarded as one of the most dangerous deep threats in NFL history and ranks second all time behind Jerry Rice with 34 touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more.
“I used to watch his highlights all the time,” Brookins said. “I used to watch him growing up. I tried to play like him.”
Up next for Steel Valley is No. 4 seed Neshannock, which enters the semifinals with an 11-1 record and a ton of momentum. The Lancers are riding a seven-game winning streak, having scored at least 39 points in six of those seven wins. And Neshannock quarterback Jonny Huff actually enters the game with more rushing yards (1,797) than Brookins, although he does have three more games played.
Think Brookins might take the matchup as a personal challenge? You bet.
“I think he’ll like the challenge,” Braszo said. “He likes to compete. He likes to be the best out there. That’s why he works so hard at it.”
Steel Valley is no stranger to dominant seasons, having made history in 2016 when the Ironmen went 15-0 while winning all 15 games via mercy rule. This year’s team isn’t quite on that same trajectory, but it’s pretty close. Steel Valley owns the No. 1 scoring offense (46.2 ppg) and No. 1 scoring defense in the WPIAL (6.4 ppg), and the Ironmen have won eight of 10 games via the mercy rule.
It takes a special player to lead a special team, and that 2016 team featured one of the area’s most celebrated players of the past decade in Paris Ford. Time will tell if this year’s team can duplicate the perfect season and WPIAL and PIAA championships from 2016, but if they do, Brookins’ name will surely belong right alongside Ford’s in Steel Valley lore.
“I see their plaque in our school. They have it in a frame, and we walk past it every day just wishing it was us,” Brookins said. “I want our name to go down, the 2022 season to go down in history.”