Watch Shai McKenzie play, and it doesn't take 20/20 vision to see he is the type of running back who doesn't set foot on the football fields of Western Pennsylvania very often, one whose numbers this season have been rivaled by few in WPIAL history.
McKenzie's coach at Washington High School, Mike Bosnic, doesn't shy away from describing the talent of the kid he has seen time and time again over the past three seasons, and once again didn't hold back his opinion earlier this week.
"He's one of the best running backs in America," Bosnic said of McKenzie, a junior. "He should be one of the top recruits in the country. He's been amazing. He's the best running back I've seen."
This afternoon, the Aliquippa defense will see the best running back they have seen.
When Washington (12-0) and Aliquippa (12-0) get together at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class AA championship, there will be no shortage of storylines and subplots, but there will be no matchup more closely watched than how McKenzie -- who leads the WPIAL in rushing and touchdowns -- fares against an Aliquippa defense that has been nearly impenetrable this fall.
Entering the season, Mc-Kenzie might have been labeled "a player to watch." But since running for 210 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener, the tag "main attraction" has been much more fitting. McKenzie already has a few Division I scholarship offers, including one from Pitt.
All McKenzie has done this season is rush for 2,656 yards to go along with 42 touchdowns. McKenzie is averaging a superb 12.4 yards per carry and has rushed for more than 200 yards in all but two games.
In the postseason, he's been sensational, running for 754 yards and 11 touchdowns in three games, including 294 yards and four touchdowns in a semifinal win against South Fayette.
Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac, whose Quips are the defending champions, said he came away impressed with McKenzie and the Washington offensive line from what he has seen on video.
"This isn't all that scientific," said Zmijanac, who is aiming for his fifth WPIAL title. "We have to clog up the holes and make it tougher for him. You're never going to stop a guy like that. Hopefully, we'll slow him down enough to keep him under control."
If anyone is capable of doing so, it's Aliquippa. The Quips have been terrific defensively, surrendering a paltry 42 points all season, including just six in the postseason. They have yet to allow a player to run for 100 yards against them.
Among the key run-stoppers for the Quips are end Chris Ingram, tackle Jaleel Fields and linebacker Celo Chavis. In last week's 56-0 drubbing of Jeannette, Aliquippa held the Jayhawks to one first down and 25 total yards.
"The thing that sticks out the most is there is no weakness," Bosnic said of the Aliquippa defense. "There's no weak link. Even some of the better teams, the great teams, there might be something you look at and take from film. There's just nothing to exploit with them."
While Washington will try to pound away at the Aliquippa defense primarily with one running back, the Quips will counter with a deep group of runners highlighted by a dangerous tandem of juniors Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson.
Henry (1,316 yards) and Swanson (1,028) are the only set of teammates in the WPIAL to have rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Henry has scored 23 touchdowns and Swanson 18. Both are averaging 11.3 yards per carry.
"It's a real luxury to have two guys who feel good about themselves," said Zmijanac.
Both are Division I prospects. Henry is being recruited as a defensive back and has been offered by Ohio State, among others.
When the recruiting website Rivals last week released its list of the top 250 juniors in the country, Henry and McKenzie were two of four Pennsylvania players to make the cut.
Aliquippa is playing in the championship game for the fifth year in a row and has won 14 WPIAL titles, more than any other school. Washington has won six championships, the last coming in 2001.
Washington's Shai McKenzie led the WPIAL in rushing this season and is only 84 yards from the WPIAL single-season record of 2,740, set by Hopewell's Rushel Shell in the 2009 season. ... Aliquippa has two 1,000-yard rushers in Dravon Henry and Terry Swanson, but lineman Jaleel Fields (6-3, 280) is attracting attention from Division I colleges.
Washington's Mike Bosnic is a former Pitt offensive lineman who is in his fourth season with the Little Prexies after coaching Carmichaels for six years. ... Aliquippa coach Mike Zmijanac is in his 16th season and has four WPIAL titles. He is unique in that he also has PIAA championships as a head coach in football and basketball.
Washington has six WPIAL titles. The first came in 1920 and the last in 2001. ... Aliquippa has 14 championships, the most of any team in the WPIAL. This is the Quips' 23rd championship-game appearance and the eighth since Zmijanac became coach.
In 1955, Aliquippa defeated Mt. Lebanon, 14-13, to win a WPIAL title at Pitt Stadium. Aliquippa had a 165-pound junior tight end-linebacker named Mike Ditka. Aliquippa won the game with a late-touchdown pass from Johnny Moore to Bob Rembert, and an extra-point kick by Willie Smith.
First Published November 23, 2012 5:00 AM