“Mr. High School Sports” – How Well Can Panthers Play Shell Game?
By Matt Popchock
Hopewell tailback and Pitt recruit Rushel Shell will come to Fox Chapel High School Friday night needing less than 250 yards to become the leading rusher in PIAA football history, and he’ll have company for his ongoing pursuit of history.
ROOT Sports has announced the WPIAL Class AAA Quarterfinal game between his Vikings (6-4) and Keystone Conference champion Franklin Regional (10-0) at James M. Burke Stadium, which kicks off at 7:30 P.M., will be televised on tape delay.
The game will air immediately following the network’s Penguins coverage, with an encore presentation to follow this Saturday afternoon at 3:30.
Those cameras may capture high school football history. Furthermore, they’ll show us the fire in that young man’s belly. He has repeatedly shrugged off his own amazing accomplishments, saying his pursuit of a WPIAL championship–the ultimate motivation–is all that matters.
On the other hand, there is a chance Shell may meet his match against perhaps the most formidable defense he’s faced during his senior season.
Former Steelton-Highspire standout and current Bucknell running back Jeremiah Young set the mark in 2008 with 9,027 career rushing yards. Shell enters this contest with 8,787 after picking up 256 on 34 carries and scoring four times to help No. 11 seed Hopewell upend No. 6 seed Indiana 41-13 in First Round action last Friday. In doing so, he tied Billy Sims’ 36-year-old national record with his 38th straight 100-yard performance.
Last season, when these teams met along Route 30 for a First Round district playoff game, Franklin Regional “limited” Shell to 170 yards on 32 attempts, though he still accounted for all three Hopewell touchdowns in a 24-14 win. However, his 5.3 per-carry average was his second-lowest of 2010, and Franklin Regional, as a team, has clearly matured from that loss.
The Panthers ended their 2011 regular season with a blowout win over Ringgold, as heard on 93.7 The Fan, and another decisive victory over Greensburg-Salem to capture the outright conference title and the No. 2 seed in WPIAL Class AAA. They struggled last Friday before ultimately opening the playoffs with a 28-14 win over No. 15 seed Belle Vernon.
It was something of an eyebrow-raiser to see the most productive offense in the classification struggle with a Belle Vernon squad that had been banged up and lost key players. Then again, these Leopards are a reputedly blue-collar bunch, and coincidentally, they gave Hopewell fits in a season-opening loss; Shell didn’t crack the 100-yard barrier till the fourth quarter that night.
In the bigger picture, Franklin Regional is coming off one of its more unimpressive performances of the season. Still, its defense, the second-least scored upon unit in the WPIAL during the regular campaign at 5.1 points per game, rose to the occasion once more, and this marked just the second time all year, albeit the second time in a row, that an opponent had reached double figures.
The counterargument to that is the perception of the two conferences being represented Friday night. Although the Keystone Conference has improved its stead since the last biennial realignment–this marks the first time in over a decade that two of its teams have reached round two–the Parkway Conference is thought to be the toughest in the WPIAL. Conventional wisdom says Hopewell is more battle-tested.
The Vikings have defeated two of the Parkway’s three other playoff qualifiers, upsetting 2010 district runner-up Montour and beating West Allegheny two weeks ago with the season on the line, and losing to WPIAL champion Central Valley. What do those three games have in common? Shell was a factor.
He ran for 233 yards and a game-winning TD against Montour, the top-ranked Class AAA team at the time, 216 yards and all four Hopewell touchdowns against West A, and 264 in a losing effort against the Warriors on national television. He’s averaging just over 200 yards per game after beginning the season averaging just under 200 for his career.
I was in attendance for the Franklin Regional-Ringgold game, and although Ringgold was without the services of its top offensive gun, Quad Law, much of that night, the way the Panthers’ defense has controlled their opponents this season, including the Rams, has been impressive. A couple weeks ago they contained Michael Kizzie of Greensburg-Salem, another of Class AAA’s top rushers, and they entered the playoffs among the WPIAL’s top ten in total yardage allowed.
In high school football we routinely celebrate the individual, and Shell couldn’t be a better example of that, but it’s still a team game, and though he has done it on multiple occasions, no individual can routinely win games by himself in that sport.
On “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show” last Saturday I picked the Panthers to eke out a win this weekend, and I’ll stick by it. Having said that, for all the skillful scheming of Greg Botta, I still won’t be surprised in the slightest when Shell becomes Pennsylvania’s all-time rushing champion before his high school career ends.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)