By Matt Popchock


Who is the greatest running back in WPIAL history?

You heard from John Phillips on that topic this past Saturday on “The UPMC Centers for Rehab Services High School Football Show” (Saturdays at 7:00 A.M. on 93.7 The Fan). On that same program, you also heard, albeit unexpectedly, the nostalgic take of Tom McMillan from the Pittsburgh Penguins, a former high school sports reporter.

Now it’s Mr. High School Sports’ turn.

Does Hopewell’s Rushel Shell deserve to go down as the greatest player at his position to ever play in the WPIAL?

I informally broached the topic with his head coach, Dave Vestal, after Shell put down his shoulder and barreled through the district’s career rushing record, previously held by Fort Cherry’s Mike Vernillo, last Friday.

Vestal prefers to wait till the end of Shell’s senior campaign to fully and fairly assess the impact Tony Dorsett’s great-nephew has had on the WPIAL and on his own program. That makes perfect sense…and it gives Shell even more time to build what has become an already compelling case.

As I’ve said before, the two best WPIAL football players I’ve seen in my lifetime are, in no particular order, LaVar Arrington and Terrelle Pryor, both of whom were famous for their ability to carry the rock. Arrington was arguably the greatest ironman of them all, and Pryor was arguably the greatest dual-threat quarterback of them all.

Which of those two was better? Flip a coin if you wish, though I’m inclined to go with Arrington…and not because I’m afraid the North Hills superstar will sneak up on one of his own with his legendary “LaVar Leap” if I say otherwise.

Without Pryor, the Jeannette squad that rolled to WPIAL and PIAA Class AA titles in 2007 would still have had Jordan Hall, and a rich pool of talent at other positions. In fairness, they probably should have won states when Pryor was a junior as well.

Arrington was a rare breed–a freshman who became an impact player on a Quad-A team, helping North Hills win its most recent WPIAL and PIAA championship in 1993, his varsity debut. Take him away from that team, and that glory might never have been realized. As a sophomore, when North Hills was neutralized by key graduation losses, he was still seen as one of the brightest rising stars in the nation.

I try to use the same criteria when examining Shell’s career. If Rushel Shell got hurt, heaven forbid, or simply didn’t exist, would Hopewell be a decidedly more average team?

I’d say that’s a pretty definite yes. Despite the positive contributions from the other Vikings, players like Nolan Harmatto, Adam Murray, and Wiley Belknap, Shell is the lynch pin of that offense. Look at how mightily Hopewell struggled to make the playoffs out of the Parkway Conference last season, even with Shell at the top of his game…imagine how much worse things could have turned out for that team without him.

Furthermore, I consider the competition. To me, it’s not simply about who puts up the best numbers, but rather, who puts up the best numbers against the best players. Arrington was the first running back in WPIAL Class AAAA history to break the 4,000 career yard barrier. Matt Gavrish of Penn-Trafford eclipsed Arrington in the offensive record books the same year the latter went to Penn State, though as an all-around athlete, Gavrish was not within Arrington’s galaxy.

That’s why Vernillo may never get the respect he deserves. I don’t care who you are or where you come from, there’s something to be said for setting a record that doesn’t get broken for 12 years, and I would argue that some pretty exceptional football players from seasons past have come from Class A. But because of his competition, there are some who take Vernillo’s accomplishments a little more lightly than others.

Shell, in the meantime, has routinely put up staggering numbers in the second-highest classification, against teams from the Parkway Conference, regarded as one of the toughest from top to bottom in the WPIAL.

Right now I would tentatively rank him second all-time behind Arrington. “Uncle Tony” was an exceptional player at Hopewell as well, but he didn’t put up comparable numbers, and it wasn’t until after high school Dorsett became the universally celebrated running back he is today.

Having amassed 7,718 career rushing yards entering Week 5 doesn’t mean all that much to Shell. He just wants to win a championship. For better or worse, that’s how players at skill positions tend to be judged.

However, I’m not going to judge him on that basis, because it takes a team to win one of those; not even a 270-yard, record-setting performance by Shell at Heinz Field was enough for his Vikings to overcome West Allegheny in 2009.

If Shell really wants to simplify this entirely subjective, but nevertheless amusing, debate, he’ll approximate his 2011 per-game average while continuing his assault on the state record books.

He currently leads the WPIAL with 952 yards on 124 carries. That computes to 7.7 yards per attempt, and, in the bigger picture, 238 yards per game on 31 carries per game. That projects to 1,190 more rushing yards over the final five regular season games, which would give him 2,142, putting him over the 2,000 plateau for a third consecutive season. In 2010 Steel Valley’s Delrece Williams set the WPIAL record for regular season rushing yardage with 2,149.

Hopewell’s next five opponents are Blackhawk, New Castle, Central Valley, Ambridge, and West Allegheny, so the fact that the Vikings have yet to enter the meat of their schedule makes it harder to believe Shell will maintain that average. He’s fared well in the past against Central Valley, New Castle, and West Allegheny (over 1,000 yards, including the ’09 title game), though not nearly as well against Blackhawk or Ambridge.

A more realistic number going forward might be an even 200 yards per game, which is roughly par for the course for Shell over his entire high school career. That would still put him at 8,718 career yards, making him the No. 2 rusher in state history.

Following that scenario, if Hopewell holds its own in the Parkway Conference and makes the playoffs, that gives Shell at least one extra opportunity to add another 310 rushing yards, which would break the PIAA career record set by Steelton-Highspire’s Jeremiah Young in 2007. The higher Hopewell is seeded, the more vulnerable that first playoff opponent will be, which would really open the window of opportunity.

Shell, by the way, has racked up nearly 1,500 yards in seven career playoff appearances.

What has become somewhat lost in all the excitement and extrapolations is the fact that Shell posted his 33rd straight 100-yard rushing game last Friday, tying him with Brad Hocker (Archie High School; Archie, MO) for second most all-time. The chances remain very good that Shell will tie, if not barely surpass, the national record of 38 set by future NFL star Billy Sims at Hooks High School (Hooks, TX).

That impresses me just as much as the WPIAL career rushing title, and that’s why I’m willing to put Shell into the same stratosphere as Arrington, or anyone else before him. Once again, it’s a team game, and considering Hopewell is not a program known for churning out Division I offensive linemen, to maintain that degree of consistency over the course of a career is quite incredible.

As long as Rushel Shell stays his present course, I won’t feel like I’m exaggerating whenever someone asks me to put him in his place.

Hey, LaVar, is this seat taken?

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