In the early and mid-1990s, Steel Valley High School boys soccer program had enormous success, regularly winning section titles, and even capturing WPIAL titles in 1994 and 1995, and another later in 2007.
Steel Valley’s boys soccer program’s success emanating from a smaller school district renowned for producing many big time football, basketball and baseball stars is a rather unique story in of itself.
Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall are the three distinct municipalities where students who attend Steel Valley hail. As a few generations from these towns have adjusted to ongoing post-industrialized periods since the closing of nearby steel mills, this area has gone through its ups and downs in reinventing itself.
The same story line applies to the Steel Valley boys soccer program.
Mark Perhacs was one of those players from Steel Valley’s ‘glory days’ .
“We loved playing all sports. Whatever season it was, we did it. Soccer was very much a part of the equation,” Perhacs said. “When we were younger, Steel Valley didn’t have youth soccer, so we played in West Mifflin first, but our dads organized a program when we were seven or eight years old.”
Perhacs grew up playing multiple sports with a core group of Steel Valley schoolmates who all contributed to those WPIAL soccer titles and section winning teams, but got their start in youth programs their parents were instrumental in starting. Other members from the group included: Joe Strom and John Strom (who’s currently the principal of Steel Valley), Darrin Marcinko and Matt Marcinko, Tony Barron and Steve Barron, and former minor league baseball player and two-sport star, Ryan Ellis (currently with NY Mets organization as Short-Season Hitting Coordinator).
Those Steel Valley’s teams, under coach Drew Vautier, were a tightly-bonded bunch known for their heart, intensity and ability to wear down opponents on soccer fields.
In upsetting more technically skilled Quaker Valley clubs coached by Pittsburgh soccer icon Gene Klein in back-to-back WPIAL finals in 1994 and 1995, Steel Valley, elevated itself into prominence in Western PA’s soccer circles and a reputation where no match against the Ironmen would be an easy one for any opponent.
Many from that core group stayed together beyond high school, including Perhacs, as part of Point Park University’s men’s soccer program, providing much needed pipeline of local players that added depth and an element of toughness it needed in the late 1990s to go from a perennial loser, to first-ever winning seasons and playoff berths. (Full disclosure: author of this article coached that group!).
As the current head coach of the Steel Valley program, Perhacs now bridges the gap between Steel Valley soccer’s humble beginnings and successes — and today as the Ironmen have bounced back from a recent tough stretch.
“We’ve had some lean years. We were taking some big beatings,” Perhacs said. “It’s been a slow climb back. It’s been all uphill, but we’re getting back to respectability.”
Steel Valley last won a WPIAL title in 2007, with John Strom returning as coach, but in the years since, the program bottomed out.
Add to that, they often were put in the same section with rising programs such as West Allegheny, South Fayette plus traditional power Quaker Valley and even Obama Academy’s stronger teams were regular section foes.
The 2015 campaign may have been the low point, when Steel Valley won just one game, giving up 115 goals and only scoring eight times.
Perhacs remained connected to the program through the years, as an assistant at various times, and has now been at the helm as Steel Valley’s boys head coach since 2017.
The first few seasons under Perhacs weren’t easy either, as being a coach of a smaller sized school has provided its share of obstacles in the new millennium.
“Injuries derailed us,” Perhacs said, making note that he’s had on average between 16-20 players per year since taking over as head coach.. “Being part of a small school, specialization of kids playing one sport has hurt at times. And another factor has been dealing with kids that are leaving the area, relocating to other school districts due to parents getting jobs or choosing to go to private schools.”
To keep things in perspective, Steel Valley’s football program which recently won a WPIAL title, is not immune to these challenges, as they have just 18 players on its roster.
With some help coming in the way of PIAA/WPIAL expansion to four classifications in 2017, and under the guidance of Perhacs, Steel Valley’s finally been able to reverse the tide, and become a more competitive group again.
This season they really turned the corner.
In the 25th Anniversary of the 1994 team that captured Steel Valley’s first-ever WPIAL title, they currently boast a 7-4 section record and are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
There’s been a significant reversal from the minus-100 goal differential seasons posted in the mid-2010’s to this season (through Tuesday), as Steel Valley have posted a plus-11 goal differential. (39 goals scored, 27 allowed).
“It’s been fun again,” Perhacs said. “During those tough years, it was hard to get motivated, even as a coach, to go to practices and endure through lopsided games. But every day, I’m looking forward to getting there.”
Led by a strong group of seniors and juniors, including Matt Wellman, who has scored 18 goals to date this season, and Perhacs’ son Carson, a junior who, much like his father before him, has been asked to anchor this year’s team’s back line, even as his pop points out — ‘not typical’ center back at 5-foot-6. Captain Jamison Mays has also been a key contributor in Steel Valley’s midfield, adding his technical skills for a team that likes to build possession from the back.
“We have been solid in the back, and our midfield, with Wellman orchestrating things through the middle, have given us a solid core,” Perhacs said.”We still will want to be more explosive and like to capitalize on more scoring chances.”
Minding the net, goalkeeper Camden Rager has been an example of a young who’s persevered through the difficult times, but has stayed on with the program, and has made a difference in a key position.
“We had some struggles with goalkeeping in the past, but he’s come up huge for us,” Perhacs added. “I give him a lot of credit, as he’s stuck it out, having to give up a lot of goals in previous seasons, but now he’s helping us win games.”
With one section game to go, hosting Keystone Oaks (9-1) on Thursday, the Ironmen peaking at a good time, suddenly winning three straight, including a 3-1 victory on Tuesday against Elizabeth Forward to make a push to get as high as third in the standings and a decent seed in the playoffs.
“Of the top teams in our section, Elizabeth Forward may be the most talented, and deepest, so playing them tough has been encouraging,” Perhacs said. “Even being 7-4, and in the middle of the pack in 2A, and making it to the playoffs has been a great accomplishment.”
Earlier in the season, before the elder Perhacs, who also coaches at Century United, made some adjustments that included moving the younger Perhacs to the back line, the Ironmen lost 3-1 to Waynesburg Central, another ‘middle of the pack’ playoff team in Class 2A.
“It would be great for our program to get a playoff win this year,” Perhacs said. “We’d love another shot at playing a Waynesburg (Central) or someone like that. If we have the right match-up or two, we could win some games.”
With Perhacs guiding the program, Steel Valley boys soccer has once again found itself as a contender in Class 2A, and they’ve made their predecessors proud in showing lots of heart and intensity this season.
“What’s impressed me the most, is they’ve done a lot of losing, and kept showing up,” Perhacs added. “I am very proud of this group.”