Montour coach Lou Cerro summed it up perfectly.
The veteran coach of the Spartans pointed out that "Class AAA is more of running class. Most Class AAA teams like to pound the ball. A key to being successful in Class AAA is to have a strong running game."
He knows of what he speaks.
A total of 27 players rushed for 500 or more yards in Class AAA last season. Fourteen of the 27 were underclassmen, including West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler (5-8, 165, Sr.), who ranked third in the WPIAL and first among Class AAA runners with 2,226 yards on 289 carries.
"He's got great speed, but he's also a powerful runner for a little guy," West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo said. "He played a big part in our success last year. We wouldn't have made it to Heinz Field without him."
Wheeler rushed for 131 yards against Thomas Jefferson in the Big Nine Conference championship game.
"Wheeler was the best running back we faced all year," Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. "He rushed for more than 100  yards in the first half, but our defense came up big in the second half."
Wheeler is one of four returning Class AAA players who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last year. The others are Mars Area fullback Josh Schultheis, Belle Vernon Area tailback Anthony Levis and Elizabeth Forward quarterback JaQuan Davidson.
Schultheis (6-1, 220, Jr.) rushed for 1,687 yards on 224 carries last season. He needs 44 yards to reach 2,000 for his career.
"Josh [Schultheis] is a fullback with deceptive speed," Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. "And he's very hard to bring down. He's a hard-worker who has become faster and stronger than he was a year ago."
Levis (5-8, 200, Jr.) returns to the Belle Vernon backfield after rushing for 1,136 yards on 172 carries as a sophomore.
"Anthony had an impressive debut," Belle Vernon coach Aaron Krepps said. "It's nice to know that we have him for two more years."
Davidson (6-4, 180, Sr.), a McKeesport transfer, was a double threat for Elizabeth Forward. He led the Warriors in rushing with 1,024 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also threw for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
"JaQuan changed our dynamic," Elizabeth Forward coach Mike LeDonne said. "He made things happen both on the ground and with his arm."
LeDonne is looking forward to Elizabeth Forward's Oct. 3 game against West Mifflin.
"Root Sports is televising that game," said LeDonne of the Thursday night showdown. "Fans will get a chance to see JaQuan and Wheeler on the same field. I'm sure Root Sports considered that when they picked us. It will be great for the kids on both teams to play on TV."
West Allegheny has a trio of returnees in the backfield who combined to rush for 2,456 yards on 342 carries. Chayse Dillon (5-11, 190, Sr.) led the Indians with 952 yards on 125 carries. Armand Dellovade (5-11, 195, Jr.) accumulated 778 yards on 106 carries. Tory Delmonico (6-1, 202, Sr.) added 726 yards on 111 carries. All three running backs double as linebackers for the Indians defense.
"Chayse is the most explosive of the three," West Allegheny coach Bob Palko said. "Tory is a gifted athlete who has been offered appointments to West Point and the Naval Academy. Armand is a tough kid who can run inside and outside and can block."
Central Valley has a pair of returning tailbacks who combined for 1,491 yards on 207 carries. Jordan Whitehead (6-0, 180, Jr.) led the Warriors with 918 yards on 106 carries. JaQuan Pennington (5-8, 155, Sr.) accumulated 573 yards on 101 carries.
"Whitehead is tremendous," Heinauer said. "He's a man among boys."
"Jordan [Whitehead] is stronger and more mature than he was last year," Central Valley coach Mark Lyons said. "He's growing into a man."
Other Class AAA rushers to watch are Highlands tailback Elijah Jackson (5-7, 140, Jr.), Montour's Tyler Ishman (5-10, 170, Jr.) and teammate Cole Macek (6-0, 225, Sr.).
Jackson rushed for 756 yards and nine touchdowns on 128 carries. Ishman led Montour with 596 rushing yards on 103 carries. Macek rushed for 454 yards on 92 carries last year
"Cole Macek is a two-year starter who has talent and desire to become one of the best running backs in the conference," Cerro said. "We need Cole to rush for 1,000 yards for us to be successful."
Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta has the difficult task of replacing tailback Dane Brown, who graduated after rushing for 4,159 yards over the past three years.
"Dane is a member of the WPIAL's 4,000-yard club," Botta said. "He will be tough to replace."
Moon Area's Anthony Colaianni (5-9, 188, Sr.) would have been one of the top returning rushers, but the Tigers tailback was injured during the spring and his status for this season is uncertain. Colaianni rushed for 751 yards as a sophomore and 998 last year.
"Losing Anthony hurts," Moon coach Mark Washington said. "We're hoping to have him back at some point during the season."
Trinity had one of the top Class AAA rushers last year in three-year starter Pat Frey, but the senior tailback has transferred to Class AA McGuffey. Frey rushed for 1,963 yards in three years with the Hillers, including 940 last season.
Another Class AAA rusher no longer in the picture is Thomas Jefferson's Jake Farrell, who did not return to the Jaguars this year. Farrell rushed for 829 yards last season.
West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler, sweeping right end during a game against Elizabeth Forward last year, finished the 2012 season with the third best rushing total of all WPIAL running backs, piling up 2,226 yards on 289 carries.
First Published August 22, 2013 4:00 AM