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“Mr. High School Sports” – History Will Be Made, But When?

Rushel Shell

Hopewell senior tailback Rushel Shell needs just 881 rushing yards to surpass Fort Cherry’s Mike Vernillo as the WPIAL career leader. (File photo credit: Hopewell High School Athletic Dept.)

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By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Whether or not Hopewell is still one of the teams to look out for in Class AAA is highly debatable. There is little dispute, however, that senior tailback Rushel Shell will be the most watched player in the WPIAL when the new football season begins a little more than three weeks from now.

With the possible exception of Bishop McDevitt defensive end Noah Spence, Shell is currently the most heavily recruited football player in Pennsylvania. He seemingly had his heart set on Ohio State, but like fellow western PA star Ejuan Price, another prized recruit, he reneged on that when scandals broke involving former head coach Jim Tressel, and now it’s possible the two may end up together at Pitt.

Meanwhile, Shell, the 2010 Post-Gazette Player of the Year, is on pace to become the WPIAL’s all-time leading rusher at some point this season. He’s running toward the record books at breakneck speed, having accumulated 6,766 career yards on 796 carries in just three full seasons, averaging 228 per game in each of the last two, and just shy of 200 per game since joining the varsity squad.

Mike Vernillo of Fort Cherry holds the district record at 7,646 yards on 927 career attempts, a record that has stood since 1999. Shell enters the 2011 campaign No. 2 in WPIAL history.

But when will Rushel Shell officially launch himself into WPIAL football folk lore?

If we judge simply by his career average, elementary math tells us Shell will break Vernillo’s record at Northwestern Stadium Fri., Sept. 30, when the Vikings visit Parkway Conference rival Blackhawk. Shell gained 130 yards on 25 carries and scored once in last year’s 31-14 loss to the Cougars, the best of his three career outings against them.

Although that Week 5 game could be the big night, when you look at the rest of the early portion of Hopewell’s schedule, it is a distinct possibility Shell could put himself well ahead of schedule, if not ahead of Vernillo altogether, sooner than that.

Montour, last year’s WPIAL Class AAA runner-up, will come to Hopewell for a big Parkway Conference game Fri., Sept. 9. The Spartans, once again, are expected to be the team to beat in this classification in 2011, but that didn’t stop Shell from shredding their defense for 303 yards on 37 carries and two TD runs in last year’s meeting, a 36-29 loss in Week 2. Shell has a whopping 782 career yards against Montour, and that game was, at the time, his second-best single-game effort ever.

Hopewell is on the road the following Friday for another conference game against Moon. The Tigers upset the Vikings 30-23 in Week 3 last season, but again, Shell was the brightest of bright spots in defeat, rumbling for 267 yards and two more touchdowns on 34 attempts. His all-time numbers against Moon are even more impressive: 836 yards on 74 carries.

All told, in his first four games of 2010, Shell ran 114 times for 881 yards. If, for the sake of argument, he matches or exceeds that in his first four outings as a senior, that would give him at least 7,647 career yards entering Week 5. Following that scenario, he would just barely set the record Fri., Sept. 23, when Hopewell hosts Class AAAA Mount Lebanon and that team’s star senior running back, 2010-11 Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year Luke Hagy.

Tony Dorsett Stadium would be the perfect storybook setting for a record-breaking performance by Shell, considering the former Pitt star, Heisman Trophy winner, and NFL great for which it was renamed a decade ago is his great-uncle.

Hopewell opens its season, along with most of the WPIAL, Fri., Sept. 2, when, for the second year in a row, it will take on Belle Vernon in a non-conference game, this time at home. How well he fares against the Leopards’ defense, which allowed the second-fewest points in the Big Eight Conference last year, could also speak volumes about how soon history is made.

Unless Shell can put forth another 200-plus yard effort in the opener, which would be the 18th such game of his high school career, it seems most likely he will break the record against either Lebo or Blackhawk in late September.

In the meantime, he’ll have to stay focused on helping the Vikings make another playoff run in a brutal conference, and avoiding a bite from the injury bug, which, unfortunately, affected several big-name players in the WPIAL in 2010, including rival tailback and 2009 Post-Gazette Player of the Year Mike Caputo. Caputo’s West Allegheny team beat then-sophomore Shell and the Vikings for the ’09 WPIAL title.

There isn’t necessarily a lot of talk about Hopewell getting back to Heinz Field, but there is talk of ESPN perhaps televising its Fri., Oct. 14 road game against reigning WPIAL Class AAA champion Central Valley. Shell claims to have already chosen a college, but he recently told the Tribune-Review he would wait till that day to declare.

As neat as it would be for Shell to beat Vernillo’s mark in front of a national audience, the only way that would happen, in all probability, would be either for Shell to be hampered by injury, or for him to otherwise have a number of uncharacteristically bad performances between Weeks 1 and 6. His personal record was a 392-yard game at New Castle last fall; the Vikings host the Red Hurricane prior to the Central Valley contest.

Shell enters the 2011 season with a streak of 29 straight hundred-yard rushing games.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)