High School Sports

How undersized running back gambled, then flourished in record-breaking season

When Ishod Finger chose to transfer from Sun Valley High School to Metrolina Christian last spring, many of his friends were in disbelief.

He was leaving a well-known public school program with a nationally recruited quarterback, Sam Howell, for a small private school.

Finger, undersized for a running back at 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds, didn’t think he could get the college scholarship offer he craved at Sun Valley. So with one season left in his high school career, he gambled and made the switch.

Or maybe it wasn’t much of a gamble.

“I had no (college) recruitment at Sun Valley,” Finger said. “Nobody really talked to me there.”

At Sun Valley last season, Finger rushed for 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns on 158 carries, averaging 7 yards a touch. But he felt colleges considered him too small or not durable enough to play running back. He took two college visits, to Charlotte and to Lenoir-Rhyne. Nothing came of them. That’s when he figured he needed to play at a school where the spotlight would be brighter, at least for him.

Metrolina Christian running back Ishod Finger (left) and coach Thomas Langley have prepared this week for Friday night’s playoff game against Charlotte Country Day. Langston Wertz Jr. lwertz@charlotteobserver.com

He said wanted the chance to show everyone what he could do.

“Even my mom was skeptical,” Finger said of leaving Sun Valley. “But I ran for 1,100 yards last year and I didn’t touch the ball nearly as much as I do now, because they have a great quarterback in Sam Howell and I understand that. I had to do what was best for me.”

This season at Metrolina Christian, just across the Mecklenburg County line off Independence Boulevard, Finger has had a record-breaking season. He’s rushed 213 times for 2,346 yards, a single-season record in Union County. He ranks No. 9 nationally in rushing yardage, and he’s scored 30 touchdowns.

With 4,242 career rushing yards, he’s closing in on the No. 5 spot all-time in Union County history. Chase Byrum of Monroe High ran for 4,453 yards from 2011-14. Finger has led Metrolina Christian to an 8-2 record and an N.C. Independent Schools’ Division II first-round playoff matchup at home Friday with Charlotte Country Day.

“He’s tough with unbelievable balance,” Metrolina Christian coach Thomas Langley said of Finger. “He’s extremely strong for a small back. But his desire to be the best is what makes him better than most.”

Throughout this record-breaking season, Finger and Langley said they’ve heard the talk about Metrolina’s schedule, which hasn’t included many powers. Many of Finger’s biggest games have been against teams that were over-matched.

However, against two of the state’s best private-school teams -- Statesville Christian and Charlotte Christian -- Finger had productive games.

He ran for 283 yards against Charlotte Christian on Oct. 13 in a 62-15 loss, but so impressed Charlotte Christian parent Derwin Gray -- a former Carolina Panther whose son, Jeremiah, is a Division I recruit at defensive back for the Knights -- that Gray took to Twitter to compare Finger to a former NFL star.

He wrote that Finger was the best running back he’d seen this year, calling him a “baby Barry Sanders.”

Longtime Union County high school football analyst Tim Winters, owner of a website that tracks the county’s teams, echoed his thoughts on social media, calling Finger one of the best backs he’d ever seen play in Union.

Finger broke the single-season Union County rushing record set by former Sun Valley great Albert Funderburke in 10 games, Winters noted, and Funderburke played 12. And because of all the blowout wins, Finger hasn’t played in many fourth quarters.

Yet, up until two weeks ago, he didn’t have a college offer. Butler was his first, and he said he’s receiving attention from Charleston Southern, Furman, Mississippi and Wingate. The challenge for colleges, Langley said, is simply taking a chance on a small player, albeit one who can squat 460 pounds, bench press 250 and has been timed electronically at college camps at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“I don’t think his size is a deterrent to him as a player in college,” said Langley, who has coached high school football for 14 years. “But it is to him in terms of getting an opportunity to play in college. He’s one of the top two or three players I’ve seen in high school football. Talking about a player, not the measurables.

“A lot of stuff I hear from schools is that, ‘We’re worried about his size,’ or ‘We’re worried about his elite speed.’ My response is he’s a player. He’s an absolute player. And to be 170 pounds, his strength numbers are incredible, his change of direction is five-star talent elite. Those are the things that would allow him to play at the highest level, if somebody just takes a chance.”

Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr

Union County’s all-time leading rushers

Here are the top five rushers in Union County history. Heading into Friday’s playoff game with Charlotte Country Day, Metrolina Christian’s Ishod Finger has 4,242 career yards. He ranks sixth.

1. Albert Funderburk (Sun Valley) 2011-2014: 6,692 yards

2. Juanne Blount (Forest Hills) 2006-2009: 5,392 yards

3. Rasheed Rushing (Union Academy) 2009-2012: 4,949 yards

4. Anthony McNeely (Forest Hills) 1992-1994: 4,948 yards

5. Chase Byrum (Monroe) 2011-2014: 4,453 yards

Source: Tim Winters, Union County Football