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Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For the Tribune Review
West Mifflin running back Jimmy Wheeler gets set to accept the handoff during the WPIAL AAA quarterfinal game againt Franklin Regional on Friday, November 8, 2013 at East Allegheny.
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Monday, May 12, 2014, 12:39 a.m.

During his illustrious high school career, Jimmy Wheeler has cleared a lot of hurdles as a football and track and field star at West Mifflin.

As he prepares to graduate and move on to college, Wheeler is facing perhaps his biggest challenge so far.

The kid who was separated by just 124 yards from matching the single-season rushing record in the long history of the WPIAL is working hard to become eligible to play football — his first love — at Division II California (Pa.).

“I've already gotten accepted,” Wheeler said. “Now, I need to get my SAT score in line and I'll, at least, be partially eligible for the football team.”

If that happens, Wheeler, who led the WPIAL in rushing in 2013 with 2,616 yards, could practice at California but would not be permitted to play in any games until he completes the required high school core classes.

“Hopefully, he could do that with a summer class,” West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said.

Then, California coach Mike Kellar said, Wheeler would be fully qualified and almost certainly would have a chance to contribute right away.

Wheeler gave Kellar a verbal commitment in late April, saying California was “probably the only school that showed me that much love.”

“Right now, we're hoping he can get things in order,” Kellar said. “He's undersized, but he's a hard-nosed kid, a great runner who doesn't just take a pitch and run outside. Let's face it, West Mifflin doesn't throw the ball a whole lot.

“You know what you're getting with that offense. It's power football, and Jimmy took it right at a lot of teams.”

The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Wheeler rushed for at least 200 yards in eight of West Mifflin's 11 games in 2013, including a 359-yard, six-touchdown performance in a 47-42 victory over Moon in the first round of the Class AAA playoffs.

He produced back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons, combining for 4,842 yards rushing and 56 touchdowns as a junior and senior.

“He was great for us,” Braszo said. “He did what he was supposed to do. Maybe he didn't get the credit that was due him, but he took us to the finals at Heinz Field (in 2012). Some of those performances of his, you'll never see again.”

Wheeler, who also is a top sprinter for West Mifflin's track and field program, explained that he's always met the required grade-point average but said that when he was an incoming freshman, it was unclear which courses he needed.

While he gained a whopping 587 yards in just two playoff games in 2013, he didn't get another chance to break the WPIAL single-season mark after West Mifflin lost a two-point decision to Franklin Regional in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Wheeler's 2,616 yards put him behind only former Hopewell star Rushel Shell's total of 2,740 in 2009.

“I'm little, but I've got power,” Wheeler said. “There's not too many running backs that have power and are quick.

“It's hard for people to take me down. In my head, I'm not getting tackled. In my head, I don't think I'm little.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at

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