South Xtra: Wheeler's Titanic effort yields district rushing leadership
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When West Mifflin Area's Jimmy Wheeler gets into the open field, his estimated time of arrival in the end zone is typically only seconds.
A standout sprinter in track and one of the breakout stars this WPIAL football season, Wheeler paused when asked if he's ever been tracked down on the field.
"I don't ever remember being run down from behind," Wheeler said. "I'd get mad at myself if that happened."
Luckily, it's been nothing but smiles for Wheeler and the West Mifflin football team.
Midway through the regular season, Wheeler, a junior and first-year starter at running back, leads the WPIAL in rushing. A West Mifflin resident, Wheeler has rushed for 1,061 yards and 14 touchdowns. He's averaging 11.2 yards per carry and 212.2 per game. The Titans, who average a Class AAA-best 47 points per game, are 5-0, all the wins coming in the Class AAA Big Nine Conference.
Wheeler's outstanding season continues his steady rise. He was dazzling on the freshman team and followed that up with an excellent season as a junior varsity starter. Wheeler picked up some varsity experience last year, rushing for 87 yards and two touchdowns as one of the backups to Shamar Greene, a two-year starter who rushed for 1,441 yards and 15 touchdowns a season ago.
West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo noticed Wheeler's talent that ninth-grade season, so the success that has followed has not come as a huge surprise to the veteran coach.
"His freshman year, he really showed what he was all about," said Braszo. "We knew he had great talent. He had great speed. [Shamar Greene was] there for two years, so [Wheeler] had to wait his turn. He's worked hard. He's a lot stronger now. He's not a big kid, but once he gets on the field, people will hit him and he keeps going."
And going and going and going.
Wheeler, who is 5 feet 9, 165 pounds, can fly. He finished in the top four in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the WPIAL Class AAA track championships. This season, Wheeler has broken long touchdown runs of 75, 69, 59 and 58 yards.
Wheeler believes his training with coach Mike Mazzarese and the track team has been an important contributor to his football success.
"It's helped me a lot because my coach from track helped me run and breathe so I don't get tired," said Wheeler.
His breakout performance came in a 48-14 Week 2 win at Belle Vernon. Wheeler exploded for 344 yards and three touchdowns. No WPIAL player has rushed for more yards in a game this season.
"It meant a lot," Wheeler said of that game. "It showed how good of a team we've got and how good of a running back I can be."
Helping pave the way for Wheeler is a terrific offensive line consisting of senior center Jim Keys, senior guard Joe Faiello, junior guard Tyler Bornak, junior tackle Shawn Devey, senior tackle Jim Popa and junior tight end Marcus Martin.
"Those guys up front have done very well," said Braszo. "Even our receivers have done a great job.
"It's a whole team effort."
Senior quarterback Derrick Fulmore is also a dangerous weapon. A two-year starter, Fulmore runs the option well and has proven his versatility by throwing for 384 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 311 yards and six touchdowns. Senior fullback Diallo Mitchell has also been a major contributor.
Braszo knows that Wheeler will have to work even harder as the regular season winds down. The Titans have won all of their games by at least 24 points, but play their final three conference games against teams that directly follow them in the standings -- Elizabeth Forward (3-2), Trinity (3-1) and arch-rival Thomas Jefferson (4-0).
"I think the yardage will be a lot tougher to come by these last few games," Braszo said.
Wheeler admitted he is surprised by what he's done to this point. He's more concerned with getting the Titans to the WPIAL final for the first time since 2004 and breaking the school's single-season rushing record of 1,905 yards, held by 2006 graduate Dustin Dean.
Said Wheeler: "I'm focused on trying to beat [the record] and taking our team to Heinz Field."
First Published October 4, 2012 12:00 am