Gorman: McKenzie's goal is to make a mark in WPIAL history
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Shai McKenzie heard the snickers after setting individual goals for his junior season.
When your own family members openly doubt your ability to break Brian Davis' single-season rushing record at Washington, it can serve as inspiration.
“Coming into the season, that was my goal, to get past the 1,709-yard mark,” McKenzie said of Davis' school record set in 1983. “My father always talked to me about it, told me he didn't think it was possible to be as good as him. It just motivates me to have a better season.”
So go ahead and mock McKenzie for saying that he wants to rush for 3,000 yards this season.
Never mind that nobody in WPIAL history has ever run for that many yards in a single season, nor that only five players in state history have done so.
Not only did McKenzie shatter the school record, running for 2,689 yards in leading the Little Prexies to the WPIAL Class AA final, but he fell only 52 yards shy of the WPIAL single-season mark set by Rushel Shell.
“I just feel like I can get a lot more yards,” McKenzie said, “so I set higher goals for myself.”
It's only natural that McKenzie wants that mark and more. The 6-foot, 216-pounder says that he is bigger, stronger and faster than last season, when he led the WPIAL in rushing.
“He's a complete back that dominates a football game,” Seton-La Salle coach Greg Perry said of McKenzie, who ran for 200 against the Rebels in a WPIAL quarterfinal.
“You appreciate that, when an athlete, a young kid, says that they are a year older and should be better. A lot of people could say that sounds cocky, but he can't say he wants to rush for 2,700 again.”
Especially when you consider that McKenzie didn't play in the second half of eight games last season.
“He could have had 3,000 yards. He certainly has the potential to do it,” Wash High coach Mike Bosnic said. “Everything is better: his work ethic, maturity level and he's a better leader. He's gotten better. He hasn't stayed the same.
“Shai's mindset is he feels he's as good of a football player and running back as anyone in the country, and I tend to agree with him.”
McKenzie's recruitment is proof. By breaking the record of Davis, the 1984 PARADE co-national player of the year, McKenzie became a national target.
Rivals.com ranks him the nation's No. 20 running back and No. 177 overall prospect. McKenzie has narrowed his college choice to Virginia Tech, Pitt, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Arkansas.
“He's a downhill runner who has the ability to move laterally,” Rivals.com Mid-Atlantic recruiting analyst Adam Friedman said. “He's a very good prospect. I don't think he'll end up in the top 100, unless he has a Rushel Shell- or Tyler Boyd-type year.”
That's more motivation for McKenzie, whose 4,205 career yards are just 275 less than Davis' school career record. That should fall in the first game or two — and with the blessing of Davis.
The two met this summer at the Prexie Party, an annual cookout of Wash High grads, and McKenzie said he was honored to talk to Davis.
“I just heard all the great stories about him,” McKenzie said of Davis, regarded as one of Western Pennsylvania's all-time greats despite leaving Pitt after one season.
“He just had all love for me. He told me I was doing a good job. He said not to make the mistakes he made.”
If McKenzie can stay healthy and run roughshod over opponents again — he had eight 200-yard games and 324 in the first half against Waynesburg — and lead the Little Prexies back to Heinz Field, he sees his 3,000-yard goal as attainable.
“I know a lot of teams in the Interstate Conference are pretty strong and are going to try to load the box like Aliquippa does,” McKenzie said. “People don't think I'm that good because I got shut down by Aliquippa, but I did pretty good all season.
“Even though they're trying to find ways to stop me, I'm getting better and trying to find ways to get to the end zone. I'm not putting my goals away for anything.”
The Quips have proven to be McKenzie's kryptonite, holding him to zero yards in the WPIAL quarterfinals as a sophomore and just 33 in the title game last year.
Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac believes that is a better reflection of his team's defense than it is of McKenzie's pedigree. The Quips took early leads that prevented Wash High from relying on its run game.
“He's a terrific player,” Zmijanac said. “The thing with him is you can't let him get north and south. You have to make him go east and west before he turns north. Once he turns his shoulders north, he's hard to stop.
“We've been good the last few years, so I don't know if that's a real barometer of how good he is or not. I liked his composure, even though things weren't going well. He kept plugging away and playing hard. That's the mark of a real player. It's not supposed to be easy.”
McKenzie knows that topping last season won't be easy, but he's determined to do just that. After stepping out of Davis' shadow, McKenzie wants to leave his own legacy as one of the best running backs in Western Pennsylvania history.
If he runs for 3,000 yards — or at least comes close — he can break Shell's single-season record and finish as only the third WPIAL back (behind Shell and Fort Cherry's Mike Vernillo) to eclipse the 7,000-yard mark.
More importantly, McKenzie knows that the more yards he gains, the better Wash High's chance of winning a WPIAL championship.
And that's his real goal.
“I'm not too worried about the stats. I just have a lot of goals for myself,” McKenzie said. “If I'm remembered as one of the best running backs in Western Pennsylvania history, I would feel honored. I know everybody expects a lot from me.”
Just not as much as McKenzie expects of himself.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
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