Forget devising a defensive game plan to stop Shai McKenzie.
Prexies coach Mike Bosnic might have the most difficult job when it comes to Wash High’s junior running back: choosing the top plays for McKenzie’s highlight tape.
“There’s just so many of them,” Bosnic said. “I’m trying to narrow it down to 20 or so runs, but it’s been impossible because there are so many.”
It’s a good problem to have.
McKenzie, who was the WPIAL’s leading rusher this season, had a laundry list of special moments on the football field this fall – including restoring Wash High’s football team to elite status – and for that reason, he’s been named the Observer-Reporter’s Player of the Year.
The 6-0, 215-pounder ran for 2,689 yards and 41 touchdowns, enough to set the single-season record in the O-R’s coverage area.
McKenzie came within 52 yards of breaking Rushel Shell’s WPIAL record for yards, shattered Brian Davis’ school record for yards in a season and averaged an amazing 37.4 yards per touchdown.
“I didn’t think I was going to get that many yards,” Mc-Kenzie said. “Coming into the season, I just wanted to keep improving from last year. I just wanted to get better.
“Everything worked out.”
Indeed it did. And despite Wash High graduating four starters along the offensive line.
Left tackle Brenton Jones, left guard Elijah Jones, center Xavier Darden, right guard Anthony Byrd and right tackle Rikwon Moore not only paved the way for McKenzie, but also cleared room for an offense that, along with Aliquippa, was one of only two WPIAL teams to rush for more than 4,000 yards – 4,340 to be exact.
Its finest performance very likely came in the WPIAL Class AA semifinals, when McKenzie rushed for 293 yards and four touchdowns on 42 carries. Overall, Wash High’s offense racked up 454 rushing yards in a 26-14 victory over South Fayette.
“Coming into the season, a lot of people didn’t believe our line would come together,” McKenzie said. “I had a real good line. It all started up there. I’m really proud of them how they progressed.
McKenzie, who’s sure to have a busy recruiting season, has already picked up eight NCAA Division I offers: Pitt, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers, Connecticut, Youngstown State, Duke and Toledo.
But despite all the attention, McKenzie remains in no hurry to commit; last week alone, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State visited Wash High to talk with Bosnic, evidence that the recruiting process is still gaining steam.
“As great of a year as he had, he has the potential to be even better next year,” Bosnic said. “What I like is we’re starting to see the work ethic and also that desire, the desire that all the best backs have. He wants to get better, and that’s something that has been encouraging.”
Of course, it hasn’t always been that way.
McKenzie actually quit the team as a freshman, unhappy that he hadn’t solidified his spot as the starting tailback and instead bounced around at linebacker, defensive end, fullback and even tight end.
He pleaded to have his spot on the roster back one day after his father, Sean, forced Shai to figure out a way to finish the season, and last year brought the success that Shai McKenzie was used to experiencing: 1,202 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But after an offseason spent working on his speed and explosion, McKenzie developed into perhaps the WPIAL’s best back and led Wash High to its first undefeated regular season since 2001, the Class AA Century Conference title and a trip to Heinz Field, the first since the Prexies won WPIAL and PIAA championships in 2001.
The logical goal, along with another head-turning number of yards, would be to avenge the team’s season-ending, 34-7 loss to Aliquippa in the Class AA title game.
“I took a big step from last year to this year,” said McKenzie, who will not play basketball but instead run indoor track for Canon-McMillan because Wash High does not have a team. “I’m going to try to make it even better next year.”