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Sturdy Burrell running back Sowol ready for encore

| Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, 9:47 p.m.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Burrell's Ryan Sowol practices Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, at Antiochian Village Camp and Conference Center in Bolivar.
Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Burrell's Ryan Sowol practices on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014 at Antiochian Village Camp and Conference Center in Bolivar.

After a few games as Burrell's featured running back last season, Ryan Sowol heard his name mentioned in the same breath as his direct predecessor, Cole Bush, who set school records for rushing yards and touchdowns as a senior.

Sowol, a junior at the time, refused to accept the comparison. Bush, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound juggernaut, ended up at an FCS school, St. Francis (Pa.). Sowol struggled to envision himself as anything more than one of the Bucs' team-first tough guys.

For Burrell, which went 4-5 last season, to rebound and return to the upper echelon of the Allegheny Conference, Sowol might need to embrace his reputation as Burrell's latest stud workhorse and even put up a few record-shattering performances.

The Bucs' roster includes just four seniors, including Sowol. There are only three returning starters.

“It'd be an honor to be in a category with Cole Bush and all the other greats who have come through Burrell,” said Sowol, who gained 1,150 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on 213 carries last season. “Right now, I still think I have some stuff to prove.”

At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Sowol is not as imposing as Bush, who finished with 1,794 yards and 33 touchdowns on 230 carries as a senior. But Sowol had comparable to Bush's junior season (1,024 yards). And stylistically, they share a bond as ball carriers: They punish tacklers rather than try to run by them.

“I'm not the kind of guy who's going to do anything fancy,” Sowol said. “I'm just going to lower my shoulder and try to get as many yards as I can.

“There's no way I could be compared to Cole Bush, who was an amazing athlete and an amazing running back. I'm not even in that category. … I have kind of the same running style. But he was a bigger and better athlete.”

Coach Kevin Horwatt, who has supervised Sowol since the player started football in seventh grade, sees the parallels. Both Sowol and Bush welcomed big hits and hard-earned yards. And both embraced workhorse roles while trying to not mind the spotlight that remained firmly on them.

“Ryan is a very, very humble guy,” Horwatt said. “He's a team guy. He's not looking for accolades.”

The Bucs, though happy to possess such a humble standout, have counted on Sowol to step forward as the team's unquestioned leader. Particularly in the wake of the tragic death of sophomore lineman Noah Cornuet during Burrell's first heat acclimation practice, there has been a need for stability and assurance.

“For us coaches, it was interesting to see who would step up this season,” Horwatt said. “What kind of leaders did we have? We do have some good younger guys who are a little more vocal. We have some older guys who lead by example. And Ryan, I think he carries both attributes.”

Whether Sowol wants to keep football in his life after this season is unclear. He excelled in baseball, hitting .585 with 24 RBIs and 12 doubles as a junior. And his history with baseball, a sport he started playing at age 5 or 6, is much deeper than his connection with football.

But if Sowol shines a bright as Bush did two years ago, his plans might change. Perhaps his greatest challenge will be to stay healthy as he endures another season that likely will include 200-plus carries as well as full-time defensive obligations at linebacker.

“I was pretty worn out after games (last season), but throughout the game, the adrenaline is pumping,” Sowol said. “The lights are on. You give everything you have. By the time you walk off that field, you can barely walk, and that's the way it should be.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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