Before every game, Hopewell's Rushel Shell likes to watch a short episode of "Dragon Ball Z" on his cell phone.
It is a cartoon series where characters defend the earth against an assortment of villains while searching for mystical objects known as Dragon Balls.
When game time comes around, it's like Shell breaks into his own old-school cartoon character. Beep, beep. There goes Shell.
Shell is the WPIAL's version of the Road Runner. He treats WPIAL defenses like Wile E. Coyote.
Many try to catch Shell, but few succeed. Shell, a junior at Hopewell, had a terrific junior season, one of the best of any running back in WPIAL history. For his efforts, he has been chosen as the Post-Gazette Player of the Year. This is the 17th year of the award, which takes into account all players in the WPIAL and City League.
Shell had a few other strong challengers for player of the year, and he thought it might go to Clairton's Desimon Green or South Fayette's Christian Brumbaugh. But in Western Pennsylvania, Shell is on a different level.
"Right now, I have him as the No. 5 player in the country for next year's class," said Tom Lemming, a renowned national talent scout for CSTV. "I've seen his films, and he has size, vision, balance, speed and the most important thing he does is produce."
In fact, he has produced like no other WPIAL running back has in his first three years of high school. Shell already has 6,766 yards, second-best in WPIAL history, on 796 attempts. No other WPIAL runner had this many yards after his junior year.
The WPIAL record for career rushing yardage is 7,646 yards, held by 2000 Fort Cherry graduate Mike Vernillo. Barring injury, Shell has an excellent chance at the record, needing only 880 yards next season. He also has a shot at the state record, needing 2,261 yards to catch Steelton-Highspire's Jeremiah Young.
If Shell has another season like this year, he will break the state record. Consider:
• Shell rushed 323 times for 2,510 yards (7.8 average) and scored 32 touchdowns this season. He averaged 228 yards rushing a game.
• In the history of the WPIAL, only four running backs have gained more than 2,000 yards in the regular season. Shell has done it twice, including 2,102 this regular season.
• Shell had three 300-yard games this season, and two of them were against Montour and Central Valley, who met in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game.
• Shell also had three 200-yard games.
After Hopewell started the season 1-4, the Vikings won their final four regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs and then knocked off Franklin Regional in the first round. The season ended with a 38-28 loss against Thomas Jefferson in the quarterfinals.
"At first, it was a tough season because we kept losing," Shell said. "But, once we came together as a team, it started getting easier.
"It was a great test to see if we could come together as a team and overcome adversity. I wouldn't say it was a satisfying season, but a season that just showed what kids could really step up."
As for his own season, Shell has never been one who believes he has reached his potential.
"I'd say I had a pretty good year, but I still have a lot of things to work on and prepare for next year," Shell said. "Just my speed and strength."
Shell was 5 feet 11, and about 220 pounds during football season. Playing basketball has dropped his weight to 202 pounds.
"But I'm more cut, lean and in better shape now," Shell said.
With a good nucleus of players coming back for next season, Shell believes Hopewell could be a contender in WPIAL Class AAA. He also has 29 consecutive 100-yard games and has a shot at the national record of 38 in a row.
As for the records, Shell said: "It would be a great accomplishment, but it's not my overall goal. I just want win the championship."
One other thing Shell will have to deal with more next year is recruiting pressure. He has scholarship offers from schools across the country and doubts whether he will make a decision before the start of his senior season.
"Right now, my top five would probably be Ohio State, Penn State, Florida, Alabama and Oregon," Shell said.
Not all that long ago Shell listed Pitt among his favorites and not Penn State.
He said he now has Penn State on his list of top schools mainly because of the relationship he has developed with Penn State assistant Tom Bradley.
The coaching change at Pitt has affected Shell's thinking some, but he added: "They're still one of my schools just because it's at home. I still have to figure out some things and talk to the new coach there. I'll see what my relationship is with him."
Year Player School
1994 Brandon Short McKeesport
1995 Tony Zimmerman Penn-Trafford
1996 LaVar Arrington North Hills
1997 Brandon Williams Valley
1998 Rod Rutherford Perry
1999 Cecil Howard McKeesport
2000 Josh Lay Aliquippa
2001 Tyler Palko West Allegheny
Steve Breaston Woodland Hills
2002 Paul Posluszny Hopewell
2003 Eugene Jarvis Central Catholic
2004 Eugene Jarvis Central Catholic
2005 Dorin Dickerson West Allegheny
2006 Terrelle Pryor Jeannette
2007 Terrelle Pryor Jeannette
2008 Dorian Bell Gateway
2009 Mike Caputo West Allegheny
2010 Rushel Shell Hopewell
First Published December 24, 2010 5:00 AM