TribLive HSSN ranks the top 7 running backs in WPIAL history — No. 1
Did you ever wonder how you would rank the top high school football players in WPIAL history?
So did the staff at the TribLive High School Sports Network.
Beginning today with running backs, Trib HSSN will rank the top 7 high school football players in WPIAL history by position based on their performance during their scholastic careers.
We will announce the players in reverse order each day, starting Saturday. The top player will be released each Friday morning.
We encourage you to tell us through social media if you agree, or if we have missed the mark with our rankings.
There are no perfect rankings, but it’s something to discuss and debate each week.
Have fun with them and hopefully your – or your father’s – favorite player made the lists.
Here’s a look at the Trib 7 all-time great running backs:
No. 1 — Tony Dorsett, Hopewell
Long before there was the Internet, google and Hudl, Dorsett was a legend. Only some grainy, black-and-white 8mm film document Dorsett’s great career with the Vikings.
He is only one of three WPIAL players to win a Heisman Trophy — Johnny Lujack of Connellsville and Leon Hart of Turtle Creek the others.
Dorsett only stared two seasons at running back. He played cornerback as a sophomore at 147 pounds, deemed too small to take the rigors of running back at the time.
But he broke through as a junior, racing 75 yards with a screen pass early in the season against Ambridge, and never looked back. Dorsett rushed for 1,034 yards with 19 touchdowns as a junior and was an all-state selection as Hopewell went 9-1.
In 1972, he ran for 1,238 yards as Hopewell went 8-1. Dorsett was a first-team, all-state selection. He excelled at linebacker for the Vikings, but became one of the country’s most recruited running backs. Despite a 17-2 high school record with Dorsett, Hopewell never played in a WPIAL playoff game because a team had to go undefeated in order to qualify for the playoffs in that era.
He played in the 1973 Big 33 game before embarking on his stellar career at Pitt and later with the Dallas Cowboys.
No. 2 — Brian Davis, Washington
After Davis’ senior season in 1984, he was the WPIAL’s all-time rushing leader with 4,450 yards. At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, he also played linebacker, punted and kicked off.
Davis was the Parade Magazine National Player of the Year in ’84.
Though the Little Prexies were considered a top-notch program, Davis never made it to a WPIAL title game, losing a first-round game to Beaver Falls in 1984 and in the semifinals to Jeannette the two previous seasons. In a 21-19 setback to the Jayhawks in ’83, he rushed for 229 yards.
A legendary athlete, he played on two WPIAL basketball title-winners and won the WPIAL long jump title three straight seasons and the 100-meter dash once.
His career at Pitt was shortened by injuries.
No. 3 — Rushel Shell, Hopewell
Shell remains the leading rusher in WPIAL history with 9,078 yards.
While with Hopewell, he also set a new national record by running for 100 yards or more in 39 consecutive games.
Shell carried for 200 yards or more 25 times in his high school career.
It didn’t take Shell long to make a name for himself. As a freshman in 2008, he ran for 1,516 yards. In 2009, Shell rushed for 2,740 yards and became the second sophomore in WPIAL history to eclipse 4,000 career yards.
He ran for 2,510 yards as a junior and capped off an outstanding career with 2,302 yards. He broke the 9,000-yard mark on Nov. 11, 2011, in a playoff game against Franklin Regional at Fox Chapel High School.
After one season at Pitt, he transferred to West Virginia.
No. 4 — Lamont Wade, Clairton
Wade finished his career with 7,079 yards, third in WPIAL history. He had a spectacular senior season in 2016, running for 2,368 yards and 40 touchdowns and 192 points. That was enough to be named Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year and a first-team all-USA Today player.
Clairton finished as the 2016 PIAA Class A runner-up at 14-1.
Wade is the all-time leader in WPIAL career touchdowns with 120, and the Bears went 51-5 with three WPIAL championships during his tenure.
He was first-team all-state three consecutive seasons.
Though more widely-known as a running back, he intercepted 14 career passes, scoring touchdowns on pick-offs in three consecutive playoff games. He is now playing at Penn State.
No. 5 — Justin King, Gateway
The 2004 Tribune-Review Player of the Year, King rushed for 4,519 yards and 59 touchdowns on 544 carries during his career with the Gators.
He also was Gatorade’s Pennsylvania Player of the Year in ’04 as he led Gateway to the WPIAL Class 4A title game. The Gators went 11-2, with King running for 1,902 yards and 36 touchdowns (three as a receiver) on 208 attempts.
That was preceded by an outstanding junior campaign where he rushed for 1,763 yards and crossed the goal line 29 times.
Rated the country’s top cornerback, King played in the defensive backfield at Penn State for three seasons and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL draft.
No. 6 — Mike Vernillo, Fort Cherry
Vernillo finished his career at Fort Cherry as the WPIAL’s all-time leading rusher with 7,646 yards, a status that lasted 12 years until Rushel Shell came along. He is still No. 2.
In his scholastic career, Vernillo’s 7,646 yards came on 927 carries. He scored 102 touchdowns.
As a sophomore starter, he rushed for 2,546 yards as the Rangers made the WPIAL Class A finals at Three Rivers Stadium, losing to Riverview, 19-14.
In 1997, Vernillo reached 4,000 career rushing yards, becoming the fastest player to reach that milestone.
Fort Cherry made the WPIAL playoffs all four seasons with Vernillo on the team.
He finished his high school career with an appearance in the Big 33 Classic, scoring a touchdown for the Pennsylvania team that beat an Ohio team that included Findlay quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Vernillo was recruited by West Virginia but later transferred to Slippery Rock.
No. 7 – Tyler Boyd, Clairton
One of the most productive performers in WPIAL history, he set a then-WPIAL record with 117 career touchdowns and finished as the third-leading rusher in WPIAL annals with 5,755 yards.
He is currently ranked eighth. Clairton went 48-0 in his three years as a starter and 63-1 when his freshman year is included. Boyd owns a record that might never be broken – 21-0 in playoff games which he started and 28-0 as a varsity member – what with the reduction in playoff rounds.
He was part of four consecutive WPIAL and PIAA titles. As a senior in 2012 , Boyd rushed for 2,584 yards and 43 touchdowns, had 295 yards receiving on just 13 catches and led the WPIAL in scoring with 51 total touchdowns and 345 points.
Boyd was selected to play in the Big 33 Football Classic (Pennsylvania vs. Maryland) and was named the game’s MVP after accounting for five touchdowns (91-yard kick return, 68-yard halfback option pass, 4-yard run and scoring catches of 16 and 5 yards).
Boyd played three seasons at Pitt and was a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016.
George Guido is a freelance writer.