South Xtra: Junior standout leads Prexies to great start
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At the head of every movement is a face, a person or thing that spearheads and simultaneously embodies rapid or groundbreaking change.
For a Washington football team that is 6-0 for the first time since 2001, the personification of its progress is undeniable -- running back Shai McKenzie.
Through six games this season, McKenzie has established himself as not only one of the best running backs in Class AA, but in the entire WPIAL, as a junior, no less. He has rushed for 1,026 yards on 81 carries -- averaging an eye-opening 12.7 yards per carry, the best among WPIAL running backs with at least 55 carries -- and 18 touchdowns.
When looking at his team's fast start, Washington coach Mike Bosnic knows just what a big factor McKenzie has played in those wins.
"He's changed games," Bosnic said. "He's definitely a big part of our success."
McKenzie's ascendance coincides with a group of fellow rushers as part of a youth movement at the position, as only one of the top five players in rushing yards (Burrell's Cole Bush) is a senior.
Although he has less experience than other running backs in the area, few around the Washington program have been surprised by what McKenzie has showcased on the field this season, especially after a sophomore campaign last year in which he ran for 1,207 yards.
"That potential has been there for the past few years," Bosnic said. "It's really great to see it coming out and to see him performing as well as he is."
When looking at McKenzie and his attributes as not only a player and a rusher, it's clear why he has emerged as such an exceptional prospect in a talent-rich area.
"I would say his explosiveness," Bosnic said of McKenzie's biggest skill. "He has a lot of the intangibles of a great running back -- he's big and he's strong and he has that gear that no one else has."
Despite the success that both McKenzie and his Washington team have experienced thus far, it did not always appear that the Prexies were destined for greatness.
After a 7-2 regular season last year, there were high hopes for Washington in 2012, but entering camp, McKenzie admitted to having concerns about the team's offensive line, noting that he "didn't think the blocking would be there."
Though he's been surprised by the team's undefeated record so far, McKenzie said his team has continued to improve throughout the season.
"Everybody has been working hard and we're getting there game by game," he said.
Even with such a stellar resume on the offensive end, McKenzie still finds ways to help his team win games aside from just bursting through open holes and evading linebackers, something he proved when his team needed him the most -- in a Sept. 28 game against Jeannette.
The game itself was a watershed moment for an improved Washington team looking to prove itself against the Interstate Conference's dominant program. McKenzie was ready for the occasion, but his ultimate mark on the game just happened to come in a way most would not have expected.
Having limited McKenzie to a season-low rushing total, Jeannette had a 15-12 lead with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Though they were set to punt, the Jayhawks appeared to have the game in hand. Or so they thought.
Lining up at its own 45-yard-line, Jeannette's punt was blocked and McKenzie scooped up the loose ball and took it 47 yards for the game-winning touchdown, marking a season-altering moment, appropriately done by its star.
"A lot of us had our heads down prior to that, but we knew we could pressure [the punter]," McKenzie said after the game. "I just picked it up, shook off a tackle and tried to get to the end zone. It was amazing."
Although Washington has faced stiff competition this season, the road ahead is a difficult one. The Prexies will travel to Mount Pleasant (5-1, 5-1) Friday in a game that could decide the conference championship and then have to travel to Freeport the following weekend to face a 5-1 Yellowjackets team in a non-conference game.
The last time a Washington team started 6-0, it finished the regular season undefeated and went on to capture a WPIAL Class AA crown. If the Prexies are to match the success of that team, hurdles, regardless of how difficult they may be, will have to be cleared.
McKenzie, whose importance to the team was described as "immeasurable" by his coach, is ready for the challenge.
"I'm just going to keep doing what I've been doing," he said.
As just a junior, McKenzie has another year left of high school eligibility on what will likely be another talented Washington team. But while team success is important to McKenzie, something else is at stake next season -- his own career and future.
McKenzie said that he hopes he can achieve the status of "a national recruit" in 2013, and while no specific colleges or plans were mentioned, his future looks to be decidedly bright.
Indeed, the player who has become a face for a program may be a far more recognizable one beyond Western Pennsylvania in years to come.
"In my opinion, he is, if not the best recruit in the area, definitely one of the top recruits in Western Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh area," Bosnic said. "I think he could potentially become a national-type recruit. I think he's that good."