Interstate's top teams Washington, Mt. Pleasant to battle for conference supremacy
When star running back Shai McKenzie was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 3, Washington coach Mike Bosnic didn't know how his team would respond.
All the Prexies have done is ease their coach's mind by winning every game since ... convincingly.
So while Bosnic would love to have McKenzie in the backfield Friday when his No. 5 ranked Prexies (6-0, 6-0) host to No. 3 Mt. Pleasant (6-0, 6-0), he's confident his team will continue to play well and defend its WPIAL Class AA Interstate Conference title.
Both teams have clinched home games in the upcoming WPIAL playoffs, but the conference title is the big prize at stake.
“You can never replace the talent of Shai, but his injury brought this team closer together,” Bosnic said. “A lot of guys have stepped up.
“Chase Caldwell is extremely talented. He was probably going to be our starting quarterback until an arm injury forced us to use him at other positions. He's a great football player.”
Bosnic said defensive end Arthur Long, defensive lineman Anthony Byrd and defensive back Quorteze Levy have all played well.
Sophomore Jordan West, Malik Wells and Long have done a nice job running the ball with McKenzie sidelined. Junior quarterback Jonathan Spina has been an effective passer when Bosnic has asked.
“They might be tougher to defend now,” Mt. Pleasant coach Bo Ruffner said. “They are more diverse. When Shai was playing, you knew he was going to get the ball. We all feel bad for Shai. You never want to see a player like him out with an injury.
“But we know they're mixing the run and the pass. The quarterback has done a good job and they are using more trick plays. It's going to be a challenge.”
These teams seem evenly matched. Both feature strong running games and tough defenses.
The difference offensively is how they attack.
Mt. Pleasant counters Washington's I-attack with its own Wing-T, led by senior running back Tyler Mellors, who is 50 yards shy of overtaking Bob Gorinski and becoming Mt. Pleasant's all-time leading rusher.
Mellors has 3,301 yards in his career and Gorinski has 3,350. He has 860 yards this season.
“This is the enjoyable part of football,” Ruffner said. “It's not often you get two undefeated teams this time of season playing for the conference title.
“Washington is very explosive and we'll have to limit its big plays, similar to what we did against Jeannette. Washington is very physical, and we'll have to match its physical play.”
Mellors (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) is coming off consecutive 200-yard games. He rushed for 226 yards and three touchdowns against Yough and followed with three more scores and a season-high 258 yards last week against Jeannette.
But the Vikings also like to use Brett Fess and Ryan Ballew on the edges to keep defenses honest.
Ruffner also likes to use senior quarterback Ryan Gumbita, who can hurt teams with his right arm and legs.
“Mt. Pleasant has a very good running game and an exceptional runner in Mellors,” Bosnic said. “Tyler is tough to find because of his size and shiftiness. He's a tough kid.”
Neither coach said the field will make much a difference, even though this will be Mt. Pleasant's first game of the season on natural grass. Washington has played five of six games on grass.
“We practice on grass,” Ruffner said. “The weather is supposed to be good and they have a good surface.”
Bosnic said he hopes playing at home give his team the advantage.
“This game is going to be won in the trenches,” Bosnic said. “Both teams have strong lines.”
Another area of concern for the coaches is the play of the special teams.
Mt. Pleasant gave up some big plays on special teams against Jeannette, and Ruffner said his team must continue to work hard in that area. Washington also allowed a few big plays to Jeannette on special teams.
Last week, Mt. Pleasant's defense made Jeannette one-dimensional. The Vikings shut down the Jayhawks' ground game and forced quarterback Jullian Batts to beat them through the air.
Batts passed for 238 yards, but he also was sacked 10 times for minus-75 yards.
Luke Liprando, Jessie Leonard, Pierce Cook, Jaylon Ansell, Marcus Malara and Jonah Long were some of the players that excelled at containing Batts.
“We worked hard all week containing the quarterback,” Ballew said. “Now we get a chance to play for the conference title.”