It will be the “Tale of the Barksdales” this season for defending WPIAL Class 2A champion Steel Valley, which will feature a starting backfield consisting of brothers Da’Ron and Donald Barksdale.
“We’ve got a real good athlete with Da’Ron and a real good running back with Donald,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said. “We’ll be OK in the backfield.”
As for opposing defenses, well, they likely will be anything but OK in trying to keep tabs on Steel Valley’s sensational sibling tandem.
It’s not often a team boasts a starting quarterback and starting running back who are brothers, but that’s what Steel Valley has this season in the Barksdales. Da’Ron is a 5-foot-10, 175-pound sophomore quarterback and Donald a 5-foot-10, 170-pound junior running back.
“It’s great. Our chemistry is always there. I don’t have to worry about it too much because I know he’s going to do his job, and if I do my job we’ll be successful,” said Da’Ron, a starting wide receiver last season.
Da’Ron has big shoes to fill. A season ago, Cruce Brookins had a monster season as he accounted for 41 touchdowns. But Brookins is now a freshman safety at Pitt. That opens the door for Da’Ron, also a standout defensive back who already has offers from the likes of Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse.
“We’re similar,” Da’Ron said of Brookins. “I actually worked out for him for years, so I feel like I’m kind of similar to him and I just feel by my senior year I’m going to be better than him. He’ll admit it, too.”
Donald is poised for a big season, as well. He was second on the team in rushing last season behind only Brookins. Despite receiving double-digit carries in just two games, Donald earned all-conference honors in the Allegheny Conference after running for 924 yards on 79 carries (11.7 yards per carry) and scoring 16 touchdowns, including two long scores (one on a run and the other on an interception return) against Beaver Falls in the WPIAL final.
“To know I’m the next up and probably the best at Steel Valley because I got two more years, I feel like it’s going to be great,” said Donald, also a starting linebacker for the Ironmen, who reached the PIAA semifinals in 2022.
The Barksdales headline a Steel Valley squad that graduated five all-conference performers. There are only three senior starters, one of them being two-way tackle and four-year starter Mike Crist. Braszo mentioned senior H-back/running back Quaron Pierce and junior slot Delmario Shields as being players who will have big roles.
Said Braszo, “We’re not depleted. We’ll have some guys step in. But we have a lot of positions where we’re having trouble filling, I think. Eventually as the year goes on, I think we’ll be a pretty good football team.”
Imani Christian isn’t short on big-time talent. The Saints are the only WPIAL team in the three smallest classes that boasts a pair of players with Power Five offers. Both are underclassmen, too. Dayshaun Burnett is regarded as one of the top juniors in the state. The standout linebacker has offers from Pitt, Penn State and Michigan. Burnett played quarterback last season, but coach LaRoi Johnson said that he will be used at multiple positions offensively this season. Sophomore running back David Davis was named all-conference as a freshman and is the top returning scorer in the class after scoring 17 touchdowns a season ago. Davis’ list of offers includes Pitt, Penn State and Kentucky.
Serra Catholic is in a unique position in that it graduated a 1,000-yard passer, but it also returns one of those, as well. Not only that, but junior Quadir Stribling is one of the top returning passers in the classification after throwing for 1,435 yards and 12 touchdowns last season when he shared snaps with Elijah Ward. Stribling will need to develop a new top target as leading receiver Amire Spencer (61 catches, 1,303 yards, 14 touchdowns) also graduated.
Ligonier Valley is poised for another strong season, its third since rejoining the WPIAL in 2021 following 50 years in District 6. The Rams will shoot for a third consecutive playoff berth. Last season, they tied for second in the conference and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals. Junior running back John Jablunovsky (748 yards, 8 touchdowns) was second on the team in rushing and is the top returning tackler.
Fresh off a WPIAL playoff appearance, Burrell hopes to run to another behind the talents of senior running back Devin Beattie, the top returning rusher in Class 2A. Beattie ran for 1,441 yards and 16 touchdowns a season ago. Also back is senior running back Mason Jones, who was second on the team in rushing last season with 560 yards. Defensively, the Bucs bring back senior linebacker Tristan Brothers, who collected a team-best 100 tackles.
Apollo-Ridge has a lot of big shoes to fill. The team’s top rusher and receiver, both all-conference choices, graduated, as did two other all-conference picks. But there’s optimism due to the return of dual-threat senior quarterback Karter Schrock, who missed nearly the entire 2022 season with a knee injury. Also returning is senior guard and all-conference choice Spencer Sells.
After going 3-7 a season ago, Yough hopes to take a step forward this fall. Junior quarterback Raidon Kuroda is one of the top returnees.
Should Derry pick up a win this season, it will be its first since 2020. The Trojans went 0-9 each of the past two seasons. Back is junior quarterback Blake Revoir, who led the team in passing and rushing last season.
Beaver Falls has its sights set on a fourth consecutive trip to the WPIAL championship game. And after falling in the final the past two years, the Tigers are aiming for their first title since 2020 and sixth overall. Prolific quarterback Jaren Brickner graduated, so Beaver Falls will lean on a typically terrific rushing attack that this season will be led by senior running back Brixx Rawl (497 yards, 5 touchdowns), the team’s second-leading rusher last season behind Brickner. Rawl doubles as an all-conference linebacker. Another top running option for the reigning conference champions is senior running back Da’talian Beauford. Senior Da’Sean Anderson is among those looking to become the starting quarterback.
Neshannock reached the WPIAL semifinals last season before being bounced by eventual champion Steel Valley. Dual threat quarterback Johnny Huff graduated, as did two other all-conference choices. However, the Lancers return a pair of all-conference picks in senior defensive lineman Aiden Shaffer and junior defensive back Dom Cubellis. Senior linebacker Patrick Argiro was second on the team with 77 tackles a season ago.
Mohawk finished just 4-5 last season, but the Warriors figure to be one of the top teams in the conference as they bring back the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball. Among the top returnees are senior quarterback Jay Wrona (1,575 yards, 16 touchdowns), sophomore wide receiver Bobby Fadden (31 catches, 627 yards, 7 touchdowns) and senior running back Justin Boston (532 yards, 6 touchdowns). Fadden and senior kicker Josh Wilkins were all-conference choices.
Western Beaver will ride senior running back Tyler Florence, an all-conference selection who ran for 1,261 yards and scored 13 touchdowns, both tops on the team. Two other top players (senior wide receivers Mikey Crawford and Dorian McGhee) play basketball for Lincoln Park’s state championship basketball team. Lincoln Park doesn’t have a football program, but the school has a cooperative sponsorship with Western Beaver. Crawford has Power Five offers from Michigan State and Boston College. Junior linebacker Dalton Summers collected a team-high 87 tackles.
Riverside has an old coach as its new coach. Bill Hand, who guided the program from 2002-04, returns to coach the Panthers and takes over a squad that went 5-4 and reached the playoffs last season. The Panthers lost three all-conference choices to graduation, but bring back junior running back Robert Janis, who led the team with 916 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns.
Like Western Beaver, Ellwood City returns an all-conference running back. That would be Elijah Palmer-McCane, a junior who rushed for 1,156 yards and 13 touchdowns. Also returning for the Wolverines are the team’s top passer (junior Chris Smiley) and top receiver (senior Michael Walters). Sophomore linebacker Deklan O’Brien is the top returning tackler.
Ron Balog takes over as coach at Freedom. Returning for the Bulldogs are junior wide receiver Dekota Roberts and senior running back Tyler Welsh. Roberts was an all-conference defensive back last season.
New Brighton hopes to see improvement after finishing 0-10 a season ago. Senior quarterback Brian Taylor returns.
Mike Bosnic, now in his 15th season as coach of Washington, appears to have a conference championship contender again. The Little Prexies, fresh off a down season (fourth place) by their standards, bring back several key players, among them senior wide receiver Ruben Gordon, sophomore lineman Joe Wilson and senior defensive back Zxavian Willis, all of whom earned all-conference honors. Gordon had 27 catches for 505 yards and 15 touchdowns, all team highs. Also returning is leading rusher Eddie Lewis, a junior running back who ran for 803 yards and 13 touchdowns.
A year after finishing as the conference runner-up, Keystone Oaks has the talent in place to rise to the very top this season. The Golden Eagles, who went 9-3 a season ago, bring back senior defensive backs Clinton Robinson and Giovontae Hutchinson and senior linebacker Dante Moore. All were selected all-conference last season. Robinson, a Syracuse recruit, played wide receiver last season (43 catches, 538 yards, 11 touchdowns), but will move to quarterback this fall. Senior running back Dimajio Locante is the top returning rusher.
You can bet McGuffey will be strong this season. That’s been a common theme under longtime coach Ed Dalton. A WPIAL quarterfinalist in 2022, the Highlanders will be led by senior quarterback Connor Crowe and senior lineman Evan Brookman.
Sto-Rox has been outstanding in recent years, but the Vikings will need a quick rebuild to keep up those winning ways. The Vikings were hit hard by graduation. Seven all-conference players are gone, among them top playmakers Josh Jenkins, Zay Davis and Drevon Miller-Ross. However, the Vikings do bring back one all-conference performer in senior linemen Amare Harper.
Nick Caponi will make his head coaching debut at Brentwood. Caponi was a longtime assistant under Kevin Kissel, who resigned following last season. The Spartans return their top passer (sophomore quarterback Cedric Davis) and top rusher (senior running back Daelinn Drew).
Charleroi has a new coach, too, and he’s a former star player at the school. Tyler Aeschbacher, a 2014 Charleroi graduate, takes over as coach. He was the team’s offensive coordinator a few years back and has college coaching experience, as well. Senior running back Gianni Pellegrini led the team in rushing last season.
Waynesburg aims to get out of the conference cellar after finishing 0-10 a season ago. Among the team’s top players is senior running back Breydon Woods.
Players to watch
Da’Ron Barksdale, Steel Valley, 5-10, 175, QB-DB, So. — Gifted defensive back with major offers takes over for Cruce Brookins as the team’s new dual-threat quarterback.
Donald Barksdale, Steel Valley, 5-10, 170, RB-LB, Jr. — All-conference running back averaged 11.7 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns for the WPIAL champions.
David Davis, Imani Christian, 6-0, 175, RB-DB, So. — Shifty sophomore will share the backfield with quarterback and fellow Power Five recruit Dayshaun Burnett.
Clinton Robinson, Keystone Oaks, 6-1, 195, QB-DB, Sr. — Syracuse recruit moves to quarterback after hauling in 43 catches and scoring 11 touchdowns in 2022.
Ruben Gordon, Washington, 6-2, 170, WR-DB, Sr. — Speedy senior (second in the 100 and long jump at the WPIAL track championships) scored 15 touchdowns in 2022.