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PSR's High School Football Game of the Week: Montour at Hopewell

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For the past three-plus seasons, every team on Hopewell's schedule has had one thing in common: they've all spent the week prior to the game devising a way to stop Vikings superstar Rushel Shell.

This week, however, Hopewell coach Dave Vestal finds himself in his opponents' shoes. Vestal and his Vikings defense must come up with a way to stop Montour standout tailback Julian Durden.

“He’s a darting-quick running back and he’s great in space,” said Joe Butler of Metro Index Scouting. “He’ll rush for a ton of yards, and may out-rush Shell.”

Out-rushing Shell is difficult to do. In fact, the Hopewell star is a mere 733 yards away from breaking the WPIAL all-time rushing record set by Fort Cherry's Mike Vernillo 11 years ago.

But if anyone can do it, it's Montour's Durden, a 5-8, 170-pound back with great speed, quickness and surprising strength for his size. Durden, who transferred to Montour from North Catholic two summers ago, led the Spartans to an impressive 49-14 win over Chartiers Valley last week when he ripped off 231 yards and four touchdowns.

“Just looking at him on film from last year to this year, he's really improved. He was a tremendous back last year, but boy was he impressive in their opening win against Char-Valley,” said Vestal. “We've got to be great tacklers on defense and understand that the ball can bounce anywhere because he kind of hides up in there, and he's so quick that all of a sudden he'll show on the edge and if you're not gap-sound then you're going to have problems.”

What makes Durden so dangerous is that he's by no means the only weapon in the Spartans' offensive arsenal. Montour returns more starters than anyone in Triple-A, with a potent offensive attack led by Durden but accented by senior quarterback Dillon Buechel, a three-year starter who passed for 2,221 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. Buechel has two Division I targets in receivers Darren Massey and junior Devin Wilson.

“With Wilson and Massey, when they split those guys out, they're big play-makers so you've got to be able to stop them,” Vestal added. “But I think the biggest thing is getting pressure on the quarterback. Buechel is heck of an athlete and when things break down, he still makes things go.”

While Hopewell returns some experience on defense, the Spartans' offense—easily one of the best in the WPIAL—provide a big challenge. Vestal thinks his crew is up to it.

“We just have to make sure we understand what we need to do to prevent the big play and try to tackle all the weapons that they have,” he said. “It's a matter of keeping it simple and getting good at what you do.”

With Shell and returning starter Nolan Harmotto, a dual threat behind center, the Hopewell offense has some weapons of their own. The catch, however, is that the Vikings offensive line consists of five new starters. Making the young line's challenge even greater is the stout defensive line of Montour, anchored by 6-4, 290-pound defensive tackle Dom Martinelli, a Division-I prospect. Fellow tackle Tyler Haddock (6-0, 300) and ends Matt Barone (6-2, 265) and Matt Christiansen (6-1, 230) round out the front four.

“Obviously we're outsized up front,” Vestal admitted. “They average almost 280 up front (271 to be exact) so we're not nearly as big as they are.”

The challenge with five new starters, according to Vestal, is relatively simple – it just takes time. He thinks winning a physical battle against Belle Vernon in Week 1 will help.

“We're trying to get those guys in sync and working together,” Vestal said. “We had a good, physical first football game and I thought we got stronger as the game went on, and I think that really helped our football team get some confidence against a good, physical team.”

Having a back like Rushel Shell behind them also helps. Just ask Belle Vernon.

The Leopards—aided by the hot weather, which caused dozens of players across the WPIAL to battle cramps last week—kept Shell relatively bottled up most of the night. Until, that is, the superstar busted loose for a game-winning 66-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Shell ended the evening with 146 yards in 24 carries in Hopewell's 14-7 victory.

“Disbelief” was the word Vestal used to describe the game-winning run. With all the big plays Shell has pulled off over the years, you'd think his head coach would be used to it by now. Apparently that's not the case.

“On a night with guys all through the WPIAL cramping up everywhere, and you're not sure who you have,” the coach explained. “He's battling cramps all night and then to go out and pull that off...”

Shell, who has never rushed for less than 200 yards in a game against Montour, put on quite a show in last season's contest. In a back-and-forth battle ultimately won by the Spartans, Shell scored three first-half touchdowns as Hopewell exploded to a 20-0 lead.

Montour's four-headed offensive monster rallied to give the Spartans the advantage, as Buechel found Massey and Wilson for scoring strikes, and Durden added a rushing TD. Shell wasn't done, though, as his 20-yard dash in the fourth quarter tied the game at 29-29. In the end, Buechel and Wilson hooked up for a 46-yard TD pass and Montour beat Hopewell 36-29 in one of the best games of the year in the Parkway Conference.

Vestal says Shell's attitude--on display in last year's game and in that game-winning run last week--has been a driving force in the team's success.

“He's focused on making Hopewell as good as we can be. He's focused on the team,” said the head coach of how his star is handling the spotlight. “None of us have been in his shoes, so we can't know how he's feeling on the inside. But on the outside, he's been very focused, and I think his teammates see that and it motivates them."

Game time is 7 PM.

2011 PSR Game of the Week Schedule
Sept. 2: North Allegheny 53 - State College 21 (view highlights here)
Sept. 9: Montour at Hopewell, 7 PM
Sept. 16: Penn Hills at Mount Lebanon, 7:30
Sept. 23: Pittsburgh Central Catholic at Woodland Hills, 7 PM
Sept. 30: North Hills at Hempfield, 7:30
Oct. 7: Chartiers Valley at Thomas Jefferson, 7:30
Oct. 14: Pittsburgh Central Catholic at Gateway, 7:30
Oct. 21: Erie McDowell at Butler, 7:30
Oct. 30: Mount Lebanon at Upper Saint Clair, 7:30

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