You couldn’t blame Mike Rodriguez if he decided to buy his team compasses for Christmas.
Rodriguez’s Our Lady of the Sacred Heart squad had been looking for some direction since seeing their state record 74-game winning streak come to an end Dec. 22. Two games later, the Chargers lost again. Considering the amount of scoring punch that graduated last season, some might have had their doubts as to whether this team has WPIAL or PIAA title potential.
On Friday, the Chargers made a statement. A compass wasn’t involved, but beating one of the top teams in WPIAL Class 3A was.
“We’ve had some ups and downs this year, but they’re finding they’re own way,” Rodriguez said.
OLSH withstood a outstanding performance from Steel Valley star Makhai Valentine (39 points) to defeat the visiting Ironmen, 71-66, in a Section 2 battle between two heavyweights in Class 3A.
The win was OLSH’s 34th section win in a row and its 31st consecutive home section triumph. The Chargers (9-2, 3-0) are now the only team without a loss in Section 2 play. Steel Valley fell to 4-8, 2-2.
Steel Valley’s record is deceiving. The Ironmen were playing just their fourth game with their full complement of players. Many of them played on the football team that won a WPIAL title and advanced to the PIAA semifinals. Led by Valentine, one of the WPIAL’s top talents, the Ironmen had won three games in a row since a 1-7 start.
“They’re a really good team,” OLSH senior point guard Rocco Spadafora said. “We’ve been playing rough, and we just had to win this to prove ourselves.”
Against Steel Valley, OLSH shot the ball very well and led by 10 points after three quarters, an advantage that grew to as many as 14 in the fourth. But behind Valentine, the Ironmen rallied and cut their deficit to 67-65 courtesy of Valentine’s tip-in with 47 seconds left. However, that proved to be Steel Valley’s final field goal, and when Spadafora went 2 of 2 from the line to give the Chargers a four-point lead with 3.7 ticks left, the game was essentially over.
“I am very proud of them,” Rodriguez said. “I knew Steel Valley was a great team coming in. and they’re firing on all pistons now with all of their guys. I thought we hit some timely shots. I thought we protected the basketball as best as we could facing their athleticism. And I thought our transition game helped us tremendously, pushing the ball constantly.”
In what was an up-and-down game throughout, Spadafora played with his usual high energy and finished with a team-best 24 points. Fellow senior Bryson Kirschner added 18, including 14 in the second half. They are the two starters returning from the 2021-22 PIAA championship team.
Among the biggest reasons this OLSH team should continue to be a major player in the class is the emergence of juniors Dereon Greer and Dorrien Tate. Both played significant roles Friday. Greer scored 14 points and Tate added 8.
Rodriguez said he was thrilled by the continued strong play of Dereon and Dorrien even if he gets their first names mixed up “all the time.”
Added Spadafora, “We always have our scorers, and then our role players are what really makes us different and makes us good.”
Spadafora and Kirschner have been the big scorers this season, albeit they don’t score with the frequency of 2022 graduate Jake DiMichele (2,642 points, second in WPIAL history) and 2021 graduate Dante Spadafora (1,792 points). A season after averaging a WPIAL-best 76 points a game, the Chargers have seen that number dip to 57.7. But these Chargers are still excellent defensively, surrendering only 46.5 points a game, tied for second best in Class 3A.
The Chargers needed their defense to be on point Friday considering Steel Valley features Valentine, a high-flying senior guard who threw down a big dunk in the first half. Valentine has Division I offers from Sam Houston State and South Alabama.
“He’s unstoppable,” Spadafora said. “I tried to get my hand in his face. I was jumping as high as I can, and he’s still knocking it down, getting to the rim. He’s a great player.”
Steel Valley has a pair of future Division I football players in seniors Cruce Brookins (Pitt) and Greg Smith (Miami of Ohio). Brookins scored 15 points and Smith had 8. There aren’t many players in the area bigger than Smith, who stands 6-foot-5, 315 pounds.
OLSH doesn’t have anyone of Smith’s stature, but the Chargers are not short on talent, and their confidence only grew with Friday’s win. Spadafora said Rodriguez has been amping up the intensity at practice in recent weeks. If that continues to translate over to games, this could be another special postseason for the four-time defending WPIAL champions and two-time reigning PIAA champs.
Said Spadafora, “We’re going to keep proving ourselves more and more every game, so we’ll wait until the time comes.”