The senior running back has helped lead the Rams to a 3-0 start.
By STEVE RUMAN
MINERAL RIDGE — If an A.J. Zitello highlight reel is ever composed, its producer might want to dub the video with background music featuring some of the top pop bands of all time.
As a junior, Zitello was the New Kid On The Block on the Mineral Ridge football team after transferring from Chaney.
By the end of the ’06 season, Zitello and his teammates were definitely *NSync, as he rushed for 1,330 yards and eight touchdowns to help lead the youthful Rams to a surprising 6-4 record.
Today? Zitello’s football career might be defined by a musical selection from BoyzIIMen — as in Zitello currently is performing like a man among boys.
Through three games, Zitello has rushed for 561 yards on 61 carries while helping Mineral Ridge to a 3-0 start.
Last week against rival McDonald, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior rushed for 244 yards to lead the Rams to a 24-14 win.
“A.J. is generally a pretty quiet kid who leads by example, but last week before the McDonald game, he was as vocal as I’ve ever seen him,” said Rams coach Dom Leone. “Last year he found out just what the rivalry meant to the guys who grew up here, and he was determined to make sure everyone on the team understood the importance of beating McDonald.”
“When A.J. spoke up, the guys took notice. They all look up to him,” Leone added.
It would be difficult not to pay attention to Zitello, who has made his presence felt both on and off the field. Shortly after enrolling at Mineral Ridge, Zitello set several school weightlifting records in the 175-pound weight class. After bulking up as a junior, he set numerous records this year in the 195-pound class.
“I’ve never been around a kid who works as hard as A.J.,” Leone said. “The thing that sets him apart is the way he competes with himself. For A.J., it’s not just about beating the other guy. It’s more about him always striving to better himself. That’s a special trait to see from a teenager”
As a sophomore at Chaney, Zitello was used primarily as a blocking fullback.
“I don’t care what position I play, I just love being on the field,” Zitello said. “But I do get a charge out of having the ball in my hands.”
Despite all of his success, Zitello is quick to dismiss his individual numbers, and instead focus on what he defines as “the bottom line.” Last year, Mineral Ridge produced a winning season and just missed the playoffs despite fielding one of the most inexperienced teams in the area. This year, the Rams’ 3-0 start have them looking beyond week 10.
“Everyone thought we were going to be down last year, but when I got here I saw a group of guys who were determined,” Zitello said. “I knew we were going to surprise some people last year. There are a ton of hard-working guys on this team.”
“This year, everything revolves around us making the playoffs. It’s not about personal stats,” Zitello added.
Still, Zitello’s early season success has the Rams’ faithful taking notice. After gaining 91 yards on just 11 carries in a lopsided win over Lowellville, Zitello has gained 492 yards in back-to-back wins against Grand Valley and McDonald.
“People have brought up school rushing records and stuff like that, but I don’t think about it,” Zitello said. “If it happens, that would be great. But I’d rather just help our team achieve its goals than to go 5-5 and break records.”
Then again, there’s the distinct possibility that a record-breaking performance by Zitello and a memorable season for Mineral Ridge will go hand in hand.
After all, Zitello is humming along just fine, which is causing Rams’ opponents to sing the blues.