Niagara Gazette — Despite standing 5-foot-10 and weighing just over 170 pounds, it’s easy to pick out Niagara Falls running back Shaolin McCray on the football field.
The junior looks much bigger in pads, but it’s the speed and smoothness with which he runs that catch the eyes of onlookers as he cuts through defenders.
That same ability caught the eye of Niagara Falls coach Don Bass during McCray’s junior varsity tryout last season. Two games into the year, McCray was starting on varsity, and he’s been providing big-play ability to an offensively-challenged team ever since.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling for him,” Bass said. “He can bench 250 (pounds), squats in the (400s) and is just hard working and very dedicated. The sky’s the limit.
“He doesn’t quit. Look at any of his films, even (last week) against McKinley, he was hit in the backfield and gained 9 yards because he kept his feet moving. One man isn’t bringing him down.”
Bass first saw McCray during tryouts before the 2012 season. McCray, who had played football his whole life, missed tryouts the year before after failing to get his physical in on time.
McCray stood out immediately, Bass said.
“He’s a pure back,” Bass said. “He’s got great feet between the tackles. He’s smart, he waits for his blocks. He doesn’t just get the ball and take off.”
McCray made the varsity team and was starting in just his third game. He broke out with a 151-yard performance against Orchard Park, which went on to the state semifinals.
After an offseason spent leading teammates in the weight room, McCray was named a team captain as a junior. The Wolverines have faced problems across the offensive line all season, and Bass said he’s been most impressed with how McCray has handled the challenge.
“He’s had to do a lot on his own because our line is so experienced,” he said, “but he’s never dropped his head. He’s never ripped into the linemen.”
“I try to encourage them and get their minds right,” McCray said. “All I can do is talk to them and try to persuade them to try to get better.”
NF’s inability to sustain drives has made McCray’s ability to break a big gain even more important this season. He’s returned four kicks for over 50 yards, and added an 88-yard touchdown run against undefeated Jamestown.
McCray also thrives in the classroom, where he boasts an average over 90.
“I got serious in eighth grade,” he said. “School is most important. I believe school will take me anywhere I want to go.”
The Wolverines (1-5, 1-4 Class AA) travel to Clarence for their final regular season game at 7 p.m. tonight. McCray sprained an ankle last week against McKinley and won’t play, though both he and Bass said they expect him back for the playoffs, should NF make it.
After this season, McCray said he’ll start to look into colleges. Like any high school football player, he said he wants to play Division I. If his young career continues to blossom, it looks like he’ll have the opportunity.
For now, McCray is focused on finishing this season strong and working hard for a big senior year. Bass said he’s excited to see what he’ll be working with next year.
“I can’t wait to see what he can do with another offseason in the weight room,” he said. “He’s an impressive kid.”
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.