Steel Valley enters rebuilding season with new coach
There may not be a less recognizable girls basketball team in the WPIAL than Steel Valley.
The Ironmen graduated nine seniors, hired a new head coach and return just one player from last year's team that finished 15-8 and appeared in the Class AA playoffs.
First year high school coach Brittany Youngblood and junior guard Cayley Labishak will be the two responsible for keeping the program afloat. Youngblood is familiar with the program thanks to her time as a player and coach at the middle school level.
“It just made sense to make the move through the program and take over for the high school,” she said. “I'm excited to work hard to put my stamp on the Steel Valley girls basketball.”
Replacing nine seniors and four players from a starting lineup will be difficult, especially given the loss of Cece Dixon — an all Section 4 selection last year. Dixon's — now playing at California (Pa.) — production will not be accounted for by one player. Rather, Youngblood hopes a stable of players can contribute.
“Cece Dixon was a great player and I'm pretty certain one player can't replace a Cece Dixon,” she said. “It will take a whole team effort and I expect that we will use everything we have to do that.”
Labishak will be Steel Valley's go-to player this season.
She saw significant time as a distributing point guard last year, playing to the strengths of Dixon and the departed Lyndsay Smith. Youngblood said her expectations are not insurmountable and she expects Labishak to play within herself.
“I explained to her what I expect and I asked her what she feels she's capable of,” Youngblood said. “I just asked her to give 100 percent and do what she's comfortable with and not get caught up in doing everything.”
Said Labishak: “I'm very grateful that she thinks that I have the ability to go out there and play the way I know how to. Her thinking that I have the ability to do that is something that I appreciate so much.”
The Ironmen's roster remains up in the air. Besides Labishak, Youngblood hopes to see senior Lexus Walker and freshman Ray Williams contribute.
Walker did not play last year and Youngblood said she's already begun to take a leadership role. Walker was on Youngblood's eighth-grade team and has the potential to be a force once she understands the dynamic of the varsity style.
“This team is very much full of guards, so we have to be very careful when we set a lineup on a given night because we have to be sure we have the proper players to play a half-court game and be quick on the fast breaks,” Youngblood said. “It's going to be hard to put our identity together early on, but once we get in the rhythm, we'll be okay.”
Youngblood is eager to build the program back up. She said she isn't prepared to make any predictions for win totals or playoff appearances, but expects her team to grow and become viable contenders in the future.
“We are going to play how we can and that's our best,” she said. “We want to have respect for the league, the other teams and ourselves.
“We're young, so we'll need to grow together and learn how to play this game together this year.”
Brian Graham is a freelance writer.