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Steel Valley looks to repeat last year's unlikely playoff run

Ronald Vezzani Jr.| Daily News Steel Valley's CeCe Dixon advances towards the basket after stealing the ball from Fort Cherry's Alexis Faure during fourth period action on Monday, January 7, 2013 at Steel Valley.

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By Keith Barnes
Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 1:21 a.m.

Considering Steel Valley came in third place in Section 4 and that 24 teams qualified for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs, it's not surprising the Ironmen will be forced to compete in a preliminary-round game.

Steel Valley (14-7) will play another third-place finisher, Avonworth (13-8), at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Peters Township.

“Coming in third place, it was a really good possibility that we were going to be in a play-in game,” Steel Valley coach Kelly Sabo said. “But we took our seeding, and we're focused in on Avonworth right now, and we'll get ready to come out and be at our best.”

On the surface it may seem like a good call to put Steel Valley in a position to play into the No. 12 seed on the main bracket. The winner will meet Section 3 champion Jeannette (15-6) and the WPIAL's leading scorer, Charlotte recruit Ciara Gregory, in the first round. After all, the Ironmen lost four of their seven games with a 40-point running clock mercy rule, and teams that lose so many lopsided games usually get seeded even lower.

That's the surface view. Dive a little deeper, and it turns out that Steel Valley might have deserved a higher seed.

Steel Valley had the misfortune of being placed in a section with defending WPIAL and PIAA Class AA champion Seton-La Salle (21-1) and Bishop Canevin (18-4); two teams that ended up garnering the top two seeds in the tournament. The Ironmen also loaded their nonsection schedule with powerhouses Serra Catholic (20-2, Section 4 champion and the No. 2 seed in Class A), Hempfield (19-3, Section 1 champion and the No. 4 seed in Class AAAA) and the only undefeated team in the WPIAL, Blackhawk (22-0), which is the top seed in Class AAA.

Four of the running-clock losses came against Seton-La Salle (two), Bishop Canevin and Blackhawk.

“I think that one of the things that is going to prepare us for the playoffs is the schedule we had,” Sabo said. “I think that our section is one of the toughest sections in the WPIAL, and by adding teams like Blackhawk and Hempfield, it's only going prepare our girls better for the playoffs.”

If there's one thing this particular Steel Valley team knows about, it's coming up with a postseason surprise or two.

In 2012, the Ironmen also had to win a play-in game to get on the bracket as the No. 11 seed and parlayed that into wins over No. 6 Riverside and New Brighton to make a surprise trip to the WPIAL Class AA semifinals and earn a spot in the state tournament.

“I think that one of the things you can't teach is experience,” Sabo said. “Going through that playoff experience last year and going to states, they know the speed of the playoffs and how you have to elevate your game, you really have to be playing your best and I think that really helped us out the last couple of years.”

Like last year, this team has the players to make a run. Senior guard CeCe Dixon is averaging 15.9 points and has shown she can take over a game.

Senior forwards Sydney Smith and Melissa Cerda have controlled the paint for Steel Valley, which has won five of its past six heading into the playoffs. The Ironmen also have solid backcourt play with Dixon taking over this season as the swing guard. Sophomore Cayley Labishak is running the point and senior Lacey Gori is more than capable at the two-guard.

“They're playing together, and they believe in themselves and they believe in each other,” Sabo said. “I think that's one of the keys for our success.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @KBarnes_Trib.

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