It was the Cruce Brookins show on Friday at Acrisure Stadium.
The Steel Valley senior quarterback accounted for 159 of the Ironmen’s 172 first-half yards, leading his team to a 34-14 win over Beaver Falls in the WPIAL Class 2A title game. He finished with 183 rushing yards.
“He makes coaching a lot easier,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said. “Not just as an athlete, but … the leadership.”
Steel Valley won its sixth WPIAL championship and first since 2018. It is Braszo’s first.
“I’ve been down here three times, and I have lost them all. Three championships,” Braszo said. “I don’t know if I could stand to lose another one. I never pressured my team. I never said anything to them. … We wanted to come down here so bad last year. We just missed it. This year, we got it done.”
Steel Valley (12-0) next will face the winner of Saturday’s PIAA quarterfinal between Farrell and Westinghouse.
“They are both very good, fast teams,” Braszo said. “We were in some passing scrimmages with [Westinghouse] down at Woodland Hills over the summer. They are fast like we are fast. We’ll just get ready for them like we did Beaver Falls and prepare for whoever wins.”
Against Beaver Falls, it took two plays for Steel Valley to score as Brookins took the ball in from 56 yards out.
“That set the tone for sure,” said Brookins, a Kent State recruit.
Beaver Falls (11-2) responded on its second possession, after a pass interference call gave the Tigers good field position. Senior quarterback Jaren Brickner found senior receiver Trey Singleton for a 24-yard touchdown. The Tigers took what would be their only lead of the game, 8-6.
Brookins responded with a 53-yard touchdown run two plays later, putting the Ironmen up 13-8, a lead they would not relinquish.
Just when it looked like a shootout was going to break out, Donald Barksdale read Brickner’s pass, picked it off and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown, giving the Ironmen a two-score lead.
“That interception going into the half is on me,” Beaver Falls coach Nick Nardone said. “Jaren did exactly what we asked him to do in that situation. Their backer made a tremendous play, but that is just a bad play call by me. That really kind of changed the game momentum-wise. I’m proud of the kids for not hanging their heads and keeping their composure.”
Steel Valley took a 20-8 lead into the locker room at halftime.
In the second half, the hardened Ironmen used stifling defense and the running game to chew clock and seal the win.
“We have a lot of aggressive kids,” Braszo said. “I think they would rather play defense over offense. That’s probably why we are also strong in the running game. We have a physical team.”
Senior Miami (Ohio) recruit Gregory Smith had 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and a pass breakup, while also playing on the offensive line.
“As far as speed, power, he took it to them,” Braszo said. “We told them the game had to be won on the line. That is where we lost last year. We couldn’t move them. They stopped us up front.”
Brookins only attempted two passes, and both were incomplete, but it didn’t matter.
“People have been telling me my whole career that I need to pass the ball more,” Braszo said. “Some people throw long passes and some people have long runs. That’s how we have been winning. Certain plays we get through the line and they are gone.”
Brookins may have been the star of the show, but he wasn’t taking any credit for it.
“Our line is dominant,” he said. “We dominate the run game. So if it’s not broke, why try to fix it? We kept running it, and they couldn’t stop us.”
Last year, Beaver Falls eliminated Steel Valley in the WPIAL semifinals before losing to Serra Catholic, 35-12, in the final when it turned the ball over nine times. On Friday, the Tigers committed four turnovers but remained within striking distance until late, trailing Steel Valley just 27-14 at the end of the third quarter.
“Couldn’t be more proud, I told them that in the locker room,” Nardone said. “These seniors have done something special. They have been to three straight WPIAL championships. As far as I know that has never happened at Beaver Falls. They have done something very special, and they have nothing to be ashamed of. Just didn’t go our way tonight.”
For Brookins, it was the perfect way to cap off his high school career. In 2019, the Ironmen went 4-5. They were 1-5 in the 2020 season, which was affected by COVID-19. Last year, they were a win away from the WPIAL championship game when Beaver Falls ended their season.
“This year, we won it all,” Brookins said. “I was just trying to get the win and beat Beaver Falls, finally. It felt great to beat them as a team.”