West Mifflin relies on Wheeler for playoff victory
Junior Jimmy Wheeler helped make his point with a simple hand gesture — his thumb nearly touching his index finger as if he had just let go of a pinch of salt.
“This close,” the star running back said. “We're this close to going to Heinz Field.”
Led by another highlight-reel effort from Wheeler, and a complementary one from senior quarterback Derrick Fulmore, No. 7 seed West Mifflin inched closer to the WPIAL Class AAA championship with a 28-13 quarterfinal upset of No. 2 Mars on Friday night at Fox Chapel.
Wheeler rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns, and Fulmore ran for 108 yards and a score as the Titans (10-1) advanced to face No. 3 Central Valley (9-2) in the semifinals.
“Derrick and Wheels make us go,” West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. “But you have to give credit to our line. They did a great job. We won this game up front.”
West Mifflin didn't turn the ball over and had only two penalties, while forcing a pair of turnovers, which it converted into points.
Wheeler said there is no secret to his impressive running or his breakthrough season. He's rushed for 2,003 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“Honestly, I just try not to get tackled,” Wheeler said.
Said Mars coach Scott Heinauer: “The kid doesn't look like he's running hard at times, but he is. He is a big-play back. He's fast, and he's tough to bring down.”
Wheeler ran for 97 yards and two scores in the first half. He capped the Titans' first two drives with runs of 20 and 19 yards to make it 14-0.
The Titans' Colton Weber scooped up a Mars (9-2) fumble to set up the second touchdown.
“We knew we couldnt afford to get into a hole like that,” Heinauer said. “You make mistakes against teams like that in the playoffs, and you'll pay the price.”
Mars standout sophomore running back Josh Shultheis was held to 48 yards on 16 carries.
Not known for its passing, Mars threw for more yards than it rushed for. Junior quarterback Owen Nearhoof completed 5 of 9 passes for 90 yards and the two touchdowns.
Mars' only score of the first half came on a 15-yard pass from Nearhoof to junior wideout Jason Lozzi. Nearhoof rolled out and had plenty of time to find Lozzi in the back of the end zone. The Planets missed the extra point and trailed, 14-6, at the half.
Although Mars failed to corral Wheeler, the Planets did stop him on a 4th-and-3 late in the second quarter. That came, however, after Wheeler returned a kickoff 79 yards to the Planets' 15-yard line.
Following a tipped interception by Fulmore to open the second half, West Mifflin increased its lead to 21-6 after a 3-yard score by Wheeler.
Nearhoof zipped a perfect over-the-top pass to senior Garrett Ashbaugh for a 42-yard scoring play to get Mars within 21-13 late in the third.
Mars was moving the ball in the fourth, but a holding penalty and dropped deep pass on 3rd and long forced a punt.
The Titans took advantage with a 3-play, victory-sealing drive with Fulmore breaking free for a 47-yard touchdown to make it 28-13 with 4:14 to play.
Fulmore topped the 100-yard mark on just 13 carries.
“We let them throw it around on us, and that is a concern,” Braszo said. “Other than that, we played a solid game. Not a lot of penalties and no turnovers.”
West Mifflin also beat Mars in the playoffs last year, 21-8, in the first round.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.