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Rushing With Vernillo
By Paul Paterra

Barring something unforeseen, there will be a new name at the top of the list of 'all time WPIAL rushers' this season. His name is Mike Vernillo, the star running back at Fort Cherry High School. Vernillo, the 5'10", 190 pound senior, comes into the season just 928 yards away from the record. The mark currently belongs to former Penn-Trafford star Matt Gavrish. Gavrish rushed for 6,512 yards on 962 carries, from 1993-96 with the Warriors. Vernillo enters the season with 5,584 yards on 711 carries in his illustrious career.

Vernillo has always been a player who puts team goals ahead of personal marks. However, Vernillo admits he is looking forward to setting the mark. "I've been working my butt off to try to make it the best season thus far for me," Vernillo said. "The record means a lot to me. I've been thinking about it a lot lately." He's been thinking about it so much that he wouldn't mind setting it early to "get it out of the way". As always, Vernillo is thinking about the team. "I want to get that out of the way so I don't have to worry about it," Vernillo said, adding that he will not read any published articles about himself during the season. "I don't want to see Mike Vernillo's 'quest to break the record' every week. I want the focus to be on my teammates, not on me."

Fort Cherry coach Jim Garry is entering his 40th year as the Rangers' grid boss. He knows Vernillo wants that mark. "He wants to do the job. He wants to break the WPIAL rushing record," Garry explained. "The pressure's not there. He just has to go out and play his regular football game."

He also has to stay away from injuries. Vernillo was plagued throughout much of last season by a nagging injury to his left ankle. It caused him to miss one game, a portion of another, and just seemed to linger throughout much of the season. Still, Vernillo put up some impressive numbers last year. He gained 1,222 yards on 149 carries (8.2 yards a pop), and scored 19 touchdowns. "He's quick and has good peripheral vision," Garry said. "He looks like he's going to be tackled, and all of a sudden he'll step one way, and boom, he's gone the other way." The ankle is fine starting into this season. Vernillo played basketball at Fort Cherry last season and said that it did wonders for his ankle. "Basketball helped it tremendously," Vernillo explained. "I would wake up and it was aching, and I'd walk on it and it was aching. It was hurting, and I knew I had to do something to strengthen it. I thought the jumping and the constant running up and down the basketball court would strengthen it. It strengthened it real well." After that, Vernillo, who runs a 4.45 in the 40, was able to play football pain free.

A healthy Vernillo is imperative to Fort Cherry this season. The Rangers are among the favorites in Class A, with 17 seniors on the roster. They may even be coming into the season a little angry. Fort Cherry fell in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs last season, a 33-19 loss to Clairton. This came after a 9-0 regular season and a berth in the WPIAL championship game in 1997. "We want to go far as a team," Vernillo explained. "It's always been a goal of mine to try to get the team as far as I can get it." He will be running behind his favorite blocking back again. Brandon Chiera and Vernillo have been a backfield pair since midget football days. "I've been running behind him since Little Rangers," Vernillo said. "I wouldn't want to run behind any other player."

Vernillo has been contacted by several colleges, such as Boston College, Maryland, Notre Dame, Iowa, and Wake Forest. However, it's a good possibility he will be announcing soon that West Virginia is 'almost heaven' for him. It is the alma mater of a player he enjoyed watching - Amos Zeroue - a third-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "That (West Virginia) looks like the place for me right now," Vernillo admitted. "I couldn't ask for anything else. To know somebody wants you bad enough to offer you a scholarship early. That makes me feel good." It should be a feel good season for Vernillo. He should become the WPIAL's all-time leading rusher. His team is one of the favorites to win the WPIAL crown, and he will probably be putting his name on a Division I scholarship. "It's hopefully going to be an amazing year," said Vernillo.