In his 34th season, Ray Braszo is one of the longest-tenured football coaches in the WPIAL. And while Braszo has had longevity on his side, one thing that was always missing was a WPIAL championship.
Friday provided this Ray a ray of light.
Braszo guided Steel Valley to a 34-14 win against Beaver Falls in the WPIAL Class 2A championship at Acrisure Stadium. It was the first WPIAL title for Braszo after losing in the final in three previous appearances (2000, 2004 and 2012) while the coach at West Mifflin.
“This was the longest day of my life … until we won,” said Braszo, a graduate of old Homestead High School. “Half the time I don’t think I knew what I was doing the last week or so. We wanted to get here and we wanted to win. When you come down here three times and you lose, you don’t want to come down again and not come home with the trophy. So it felt really good.”
Braszo, who turned 69 in June, is in the fourth year of his second stint coaching Steel Valley. Just as it did last season, Steel Valley took an unbeaten record into a playoff matchup with Beaver Falls. The Ironmen lost to the Tigers, 21-8, in last year’s semifinals. Friday’s script played out a little differently.
“Believe me, it means a lot,” said Braszo, adding that he had a lot of family at the game, including his wife. “You come down here that many times, eventually you want to win. Plus for the kids. You want to win for the team more than yourself. We didn’t want to come down here and lose.”
In what was a neat moment, Braszo was presented the championship trophy on the field by a former player. Brian Burke, a senior vice president for First National Bank, handed his former coach the trophy. Burke played on Braszo’s 2000 West Mifflin team that lost to Tyler Palko and West Allegheny in the WPIAL Class 3A championship at Three Rivers Stadium.
“It was cool,” Braszo said. “I knew exactly who he was, so it was good.”
A proud Palko
Mt. Lebanon coach Bob Palko has won nine WPIAL titles, tied for most all time. Palko didn’t guide his team to a championship game this season, but that didn’t stop him from making an appearance at Acrisure Stadium for “Championship Friday.”
Palko stood on the Union sideline, wearing a blue jacket and Union hat, taking in the Scotties’ 26-0 upset win against Bishop Canevin in the Class 1A championship. Palko is good friends with Union first-year coach Kim Niedbala, who guided Union to its first WPIAL title since 1959. Niedbala was an assistant coach under Palko from 2015-2021, first at West Allegheny and then at Mt. Lebanon.
“This is about family and it’s always been about that,” said Palko, who also attended Union’s Thanksgiving practice. “When you’ve got a guy as close as we all are, all the coaches, he goes somewhere else and you go support him. It’s family.”
Both families suffered a big loss in recent months. Niedbala’s father died in July, while Palko lost his mother in October. Rich Niedbala was 80 and LaVerne Palko 96.
“So, we’ll go smoke a cigar in his honor,” said Palko, “because that’s what he would do if he were here.”
It’s been an incredibly successful 2022 for some of Union’s boys teams, and senior Mark Stanley has been there playing one of the lead roles throughout all of it.
Stanley started at defensive tackle in Friday’s win. It was the third WPIAL championship game Stanley has started this calendar year. He also started for Union’s basketball team that lost to Bishop Canevin in the WPIAL Class 1A championship and for the Union baseball team, which defeated Eden Christian to claim the WPIAL Class 1A championship.
“We’ve got great athletes at Union. When we come together and play as a team, no matter what sport it is, we’ll always be good,” said Stanley, who finished with six tackles and 1½ sacks, while also collecting two receptions for 17 yards.
Stanley experienced Friday’s win with his twin brother by his side. Matt Stanley decided to play high school football for the first time this season. Matt is a starting wide receiver-linebacker who had a big game Friday, finishing with a team-high eight tackles and scoring a touchdown on a 32-yard fumble recovery. He also had two catches for 31 yards. Matt started for Union’s basketball team, but he does not play baseball. Their father, Mark, is Union’s basketball coach.
As one of the WPIAL’s top basketball talents, Steel Valley’s Makhai Valentine can score like few other players in the area. Valentine decided to play football for the first time his senior year. He’s sure glad he did — Valentine scored a WPIAL championship.
It was Steel Valley’s day Friday, which meant it was also “Valentine’s Day.” Valentine started at wide receiver and cornerback for the Ironmen. It was Steel Valley’s sixth title and Valentine’s first in any sport. He finished with four tackles and half a sack.
“I’m definitely happy,” said Valentine, who has basketball scholarship offers from South Alabama and Sam Houston State. “What a great group of guys. We got the job done. We work hard Monday through Thursday, and we show up every Friday.”
Valentine playing this season actually came via a deal he made with teammate Cruce Brookins about a year ago. The two agreed that if Brookins played basketball their junior and senior seasons, Valentine would play football their senior season.
Valentine has been a quick study. He came into Friday’s matchup with a team-best 355 receiving yards, seven touchdowns, 34 tackles and an interception.
The only downside of Steel Valley winning the title? Since Steel Valley will be playing in the PIAA playoffs next weekend, Valentine won’t be able to play for the Steel Valley basketball team when it opens the season Friday.
“No, not next week,” Valentine said, laughing. “Probably two weeks, though. We’ll be good.”
He’s good, too
Talk about Aliquippa’s running backs, and Tiqwai Hayes will almost certainly be the first player that comes to mind. He’s Aliquippa’s lead back and already owns close to a dozen scholarship offers. But Hayes isn’t the only talented runner in the Quips’ backfield, something that junior John Tracy showcased to everyone once again Friday.
For the second year in a row, Tracy produced an excellent performance in the WPIAL championship game. Tracy finished with 22 carries for a season-best 108 yards and a touchdown in Aliquippa’s 34-7 win against Central Valley. A season ago, Tracy ran for 91 yards on 22 carries in a championship win against Belle Vernon.
“John Tracy is good,” Aliquippa coach Mike Warfield said. “Some of the things he does in practice looks like he’s walking on air, like he’s not even touching the ground. He’s not a big kid, but he’s strong. I think the two complement each other. Tikey is more of a physical, inside runner. JT can hit it, he’s got the speed, he makes you miss, and he can catch. He’s impressive.”
Tracy (5 feet 9, 176 pounds) has now rushed for 616 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Hayes (5-11, 203) ran for 112 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries Friday, increasing his season totals to 1,781 yards and 31 touchdowns.
Q the real deal
For most of the Class 3A championship, Avonworth was able to keep Belle Vernon star Quinton Martin in check. Martin finished with just 60 yards rushing and 41 yards receiving, numbers which might lead one to believe the five-star recruit had a quiet night. But as it turns out, things actually went swimmingly for Martin, who used a trio of splash plays to help Belle Vernon beat Avonworth, 24-7, and claim its first WPIAL title since 1995.
Martin, a junior who has offers from schools like Ohio State, Notre Dame and Texas, accounted for all three Belle Vernon touchdowns, and they came three different ways in three different quarters. Martin had a 32-yard touchdown reception from Braden Laux in the second quarter, a 51-yard punt return for a score in the third and a 45-yard scoring run in the fourth.
“He’s a special player,” Avonworth coach Duke Johncour said. “He’s got speed. We contained him for the better part of three-and-a-half quarters, and he made three splash plays that were just unbelievable. The kid is really, really talented. He’s great in open space, and if you let him get in the open field, he’s going to make you pay, and he did that today.”