West Mifflin's Wheeler selected Daily News Player of the Year
Remember Rushel Shell? Don't forget Jimmy Wheeler.
Ray Braszo, Wheeler's football coach at West Mifflin, certainly won't.
“I've coached a lot of guys who were feature backs in the I (formation), but nobody ended up being the home run hitter like he was,” Braszo said.
Wheeler may not have approached the status of Shell, the leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history while at Hopewell, but he inched within 125 yards of eclipsing Shell's WPIAL single-season rushing record in 2009 while trying to carry West Mifflin to its second consecutive trip to a WPIAL championship game.
In a season-long performance of spectacular plays, Wheeler wound up with WPIAL-bests of 2,616 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns in a senior year to remember, earning him the title of 2013 Daily News Player of the Year.
“I don't think you'll see a more exciting back for a long time,” Braszo said of the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Wheeler. “He really electrified people with the way he ran with speed and power.”
Wheeler's run at Shell's record came up just short with West Mifflin's season ending with a two-point loss to Franklin Regional in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
No matter, he generated at least 200 yards rushing in eight of West Mifflin's 11 games, topped by a 359-yard, six-touchdown showing in a first-round victory over Moon.
“You almost hated not to give him the ball,” Braszo said. “If you needed 30 yards on a play, instead of throwing the ball, you figured you could get him to run for it. He played hard to the end.
“He just had that little bit more power and speed to finish a play. He has quick feet, but he's not a dancer. He cuts and that's it. He got through the line and made a move, and he was gone. You couldn't catch him.”
If not for an injury that limited Wheeler to a season-low 13 yards in a loss to Thomas Jefferson in the previously unbeaten Titans' regular-season finale, the speedster who has yet to commit to a college might have topped Shell's coveted single-season rushing mark.
It was perhaps the only time this season that Wheeler stopped running.
His sensational career included 4,842 yards rushing and 56 touchdowns during his final two seasons, his senior year the crowning accomplishment.
“I take a lot of pride in it. I think about it a lot,” said Wheeler, who had concussion-like symptoms after a violent hit near the goal line early in the 35-0 setback to Thomas Jefferson on Oct. 25. “At the time, I didn't realize what I was doing. I was just trying to take my team back to Heinz.”
West Mifflin (9-2 in 2013) lost to West Allegheny in the 2012 WPIAL Class AAA championship game at Heinz Field.
“I didn't really care much about the record,” Wheeler said. “I cared more about winning a championship.”
With his high school career having ended, Wheeler hasn't received a scholarship offer from a BCS school but has been scheduled to visit FCS Robert Morris. He also was meeting with coaches at various Division II and III schools in the region, insisting he was working hard to meet his academic requirements.
“He's a super player,” Braszo said. “Hopefully, he can move on and land in college. Hopefully, he can get an opportunity.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.