It looked as if this season would be the “Tale of the Barksdales,” with brothers Donald and Da’Ron Barksdale forming an all-star backfield that hoped to bring Steel Valley a second consecutive WPIAL title.
But that plan was derailed in just the second game when Da’Ron, a sophomore quarterback with FBS offers, sustained a season-ending knee injury late in a double-overtime loss to Seton LaSalle.
That’s when Donald, the oldest of the siblings, knew he needed to let little brother know, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”
“I knew I needed to hold it down for him,” Donald said. “It was supposed to be this dynamic duo, but now it was just me.”
This Donald hasn’t ducked the challenge this season and continues to hold it down while helping Steel Valley ascend toward its golden goal. A junior running back, Barksdale ranks fourth in the WPIAL in rushing and third in touchdowns and has helped the Ironmen win eight games in a row since that early loss. Friday, he will try to lead the top-seeded Ironmen (9-1) to a championship berth when they take on No. 5 Mohawk (10-2) in a Class 2A semifinal at West Allegheny. The Warriors are making their first appearance in the semifinals.
“Donald’s a gamer,” Steel Valley coach Ray Braszo said. “He’s everywhere. He can beat you in so many ways. He can obviously run the ball and run back punts and kickoffs. He’s made some key interceptions at linebacker. He’s a weapon wherever he’s at. He’s a playmaker, and he comes through big. He’s just a great football player.”
On the season, Barksdale has rushed for 1,708 yards and 34 touchdowns. He has been especially good over his past seven games, averaging 206 yards per game in that time. He ran for 250 yards on a career-high 41 carries in last week’s 21-18 quarterfinal win against Western Beaver. Barksdale has been propelled by an offensive line that includes seniors Mike Crist and John Heddleston and junior Rasaun Hough.
Da’Ron Barksdale began the year as Steel Valley’s starting quarterback. He replaced Cruce Brookins, who now plays safety at Pitt. It was the backfield of Brookins and Donald Barksdale that vaulted the Ironmen to a WPIAL title a season ago. Sophomore Tyson Barron is now the starter at quarterback and has thrown for seven touchdowns in the past four games.
After facing one ultra-productive quarterback in the quarterfinals, Steel Valley will take on another this week. Western Beaver freshman Jaivin Peel, the WPIAL’s leading passer, threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns against the Ironmen. Next up is Mohawk senior Jay Wrona, whose 34 touchdown passes are tied for the WPIAL lead.
Wrona’s favorite receiver has been sophomore Bobby Fadden (43 catches, 675 yards, 17 touchdowns), and the Warriors also have a talented running back in senior Justin Boston (1,008 yards, 8 touchdowns).
Beaver Falls (7-5) will shoot for a fourth consecutive berth in the final when the Tigers face Washington (11-1) in a semifinal at Dormont Stadium. Beaver Falls won its fifth title in 2020 before losing in the title game the past two seasons. Washington last reached the final in 2019.
As the No. 10 seed, Beaver Falls is the only double-digit seed in any class to reach the semifinals. The Tigers have won four of five games since falling to 3-4 following a loss at Mohawk on Oct. 6. In the quarterfinals, the Tigers avenged a regular-season loss to Neshannock by beating the Lancers, 14-13. It was a dramatic win for the Tigers, who scored on a blocked punt and ensuing 2-point conversion in the final minutes to rally for the victory.
Beaver Falls features a run-heavy offense led by Da’Talian Beauford, Brixx Rawl and Da’Sean Anderson. Beauford has rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns.
No. 3 Washington owns the No. 1 scoring offense (37 ppg) and defense (9.2 ppg) in Class 2A. The Little Prexies have been especially good defensively, surrendering more than 15 points twice. Their only loss came against Keystone Oaks, 21-14, on Oct. 20.
Jahvon Woods ran for 71 yards and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in Washington’s 18-7 win against McGuffey in the quarterfinals. The Little Prexies have been led on the ground by Eddie Lewis, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Slow down Matt Sieg. Like the rest of Fort Cherry’s opponents this season, keeping close tabs on the star sophomore quarterback will be of the utmost importance for No. 3 Bishop Canevin (10-1), which takes on the No. 2-seeded Rangers (12-0) at South Fayette.
Canevin knows what Sieg can do all too well. When the Black Hills Conference foes met at Dormont Stadium on Sept. 30, Sieg accounted for 449 yards of offense and seven touchdowns while leading Fort Cherry to a wild 48-41 win. In what was one of the highest-scoring games in the WPIAL this season, Sieg ran for 277 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries and completed 5-of-7 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns.
Sieg has had a tremendous season for a Fort Cherry team looking to reach the WPIAL final for the first time since 2001. Sieg, whose list of scholarship offers includes Pitt and Penn State, has rushed for 1,619 yards while averaging 12.4 yards per carry, has completed 59-of-100 passes for 1,228 yards and 18 touchdowns, and has scored 29 touchdowns. Sieg accounted for 311 yards (213 rushing, 98 passing) and four touchdowns (three rushing, one passing) in last week’s 42-0 win against Rochester.
But Sieg isn’t the only 1,000-yard rusher on a Fort Cherry offense averaging a WPIAL-best 46.6 points per game. Senior Ethan Faletto has rushed for 1,001 yards to go along with 18 touchdowns. They’ll go up against a Canevin defense giving up just 8.6 points a game, good for second in Class 1A.
Canevin is aiming to reach the title game for the third year in a row. The Crusaders beat Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in 2021 to claim their second title and then lost to Union in last year’s final. Fort Cherry is the only team to hand Canevin a loss this season. Since that defeat, the Crusaders have outscored their six opponents, 255-34.
Kole Olszewski has taken the reins of starting quarterback this season after platooning with Jason Cross the past two seasons. Olszewski, a junior, is 109 of 169 for 1,996 yards and 34 touchdowns, which is tied for tops in the WPIAL. Cross is actually his leading receiver, as the West Virginia safety recruit has pulled in 31 catches for 610 yards and 15 touchdowns. In the earlier meeting with Fort Cherry, Olszewski threw for 419 yards and five touchdowns while Cross had nine catches for 221 yards and three touchdowns. Marquis Carter ran for 182 yards in Canevin’s 34-8 quarterfinal win against California and has rushed for 1,011 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
South Side was the No. 5 seed in last year’s playoffs when it fell to Canevin in the semifinals. A season later, the Rams get another shot to reach their first final since 2018, but this time they are trying to do it as the No. 1 seed. The Rams (12-0) will square off against No. 4 Clairton (10-2) in a semifinal at Peters Township.
Behind its wing-T offense and the No. 1 scoring defense in Class 1A (8.5 ppg), South Side hopes to win its third WPIAL title and first since 1999. The Rams haven’t really been tested this season, winning all of their games by at least 26 points. South Side’s three-pronged rushing attack includes Ryan Navarra (1,301 yards, 25 touchdowns), A.C. Corfield (1,073 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Brody Almashy (620 yards, 18 touchdowns). Almashy has also completed 45-of-88 passes for 958 yards and 14 touchdowns. Navarra and Almashy both ran for three scores in a 48-21 quarterfinal win against Greensburg Central Catholic. The game was played on the same field where the Rams will meet Clairton.
Clairton, which has only three seniors on its roster, has won 10 games in a row since an 0-2 start that saw the Bears go the first eight quarters of the season without scoring a point. But the Bears have bounced back from those losses to Class 2A foes Westinghouse and Washington and now find themselves two wins away from adding on to their 14 WPIAL titles, which ranks second all time behind only Aliquippa’s 19. The Bears last reached the final in 2020 and last won the title in 2019.
The Bears will play their third Big 7 Conference team this postseason. They thumped Laurel, 44-7, in the first round prior to taking down defending champion Union, 18-6, in the quarterfinals. Clairton trailed Union, 6-0, at the half before seeing its offense come to life in the second half. Donte Wright ran for two touchdowns and Michael Wright threw a touchdown pass to Zae-Mear Correll. The Bears, who are averaging 41 points per game during their win streak, have been led offensively by Michael Wright and Drahcir Jones. Wright is 102 of 158 for 1,692 yards and 19 touchdowns and Jones has rushed for 1,489 yards and 15 touchdowns.