High school football fans around Western Pennsylvania may have been looking forward to seeing one of the WPIAL's premier running backs display his abilities live on television this week.
Unfortunately, Washington High School's Shai McKenzie will not be on the field at McKee Stadium in Jeannette this evening when the Little Prexies travel to Westmoreland County to face the Jeannette Jayhawks.
McKenzie, a senior and Division I prospect, sustained a season-ending injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament) to his right knee two weeks ago against Charleroi Area and underwent surgery that ultimately ended his high school career.
Root Sports penciled in live broadcast coverage of this Class AA Interstate Conference showdown as its McDonald's High School Football Game of the Week. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Even without McKenzie being a factor, a lot is on the line for both the Little Prexies and Jayhawks, considering Washington (4-0, 4-0), Jeannette (4-0, 4-0) and Mount Pleasant (4-0, 4-0) are tied for the conference lead.
"From my experience of coaching for 29 years, I've seen a lot of teams rally when one of their big stars goes down [to injury]," Jeannette coach Roy Hall said. "Sometimes when you're faced with adversity, the team comes together and becomes more of a threat."
Ranked No. 3 in the Post-Gazette's weekly Class AA rankings, Washington picked up a 35-13 victory last week against Yough. The Little Prexies are outscoring opponents by an average of 43.8-14.3.
"We are definitely pushing forward," Washington coach Mike Bosnic said. "I am very pleased with how the kids handled our game last week. It's very emotional, but everyone stepped up and played through and handled the adversity."
McKenzie was a driving force behind the Little Prexies' offense and averaged an eye-popping 18.1 rushing yards a carry. He ran for 650 yards in three games this season and finished his career with 4,656 yards.
Quarterback Jonathan Spina led Washington last week by completing 10 of 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown against Yough.
"People expected their game with Yough to be much closer than it was, but they took it to them," Hall said. "They passed the ball a lot more than they did their past three games and I'm sure that's partly because of Shai being out.
"They come out in the I-formation with two guys back there and they'll run it right down your throat. Seeing they can pass well, we have to be ready for that balanced attack."
Jeannette enters the game following a 47-20 win against Brownsville Area. The Jayhawks are outscoring opponents by an average of 46.3-22.5.
"I'll tell you what, if we don't play better than we did last week, then we're not going to stand a chance to win this week," Hall said. "The score was in our favor, but we didn't play well at all.
"We have to do a better job tackling and our offensive line has to play better. We gave up a good bit of yards rushing, so we have to play a lot better."
Jayhawks running back Damone Morton rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on just three carries against Brownsville. He also returned a punt 83 yards for a third score.
"Jeannette is always very good," Bosnic said. "They always have kids who are tough and athletic; they're a lot like us.
"We know we're in for a real battle and we're excited about it."
Washington captured the Interstate Conference title last season. Its closest game was against Jeannette, 18-15.
"It's never just another game when you're playing Jeannette," Bosnic said. "This game means a lot. It has a lot of impact on the conference. We realize that.
"It's also a big game because you're playing Jeannette, you're playing Thursday night and you're playing on Root Sports. The kids know how big this game is."