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Published: October 31, 2009 06:05 pm

HS FOOTBALL: GI advances to Class A final

By Nate Beutel
Niagara Gazette

HAMBURG — Grand Island has insisted for weeks that it is a different football team than the one that started the season 0-3.

Six consecutive wins, including a dominating 28-14 road victory over No. 2 Hamburg Friday at Howe Field, and GI has proved its point. The sixth-seeded Vikings (6-3) will play for the Class A Championship against the winner of today’s semifinal between Sweet Home and Iroquois at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“We’re a totally different ballclub now,” said senior tailback Andy LaLonde, who rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. “We’ve really come together. We never gave up. We kept fighting. We’re a confident team now.”

GI coach Dean Santorio has now led his program to the Ralph in four of his nine seasons at the helm.

“Every year is just as good as the time before,” he said. “It’s not easy to do. It’s a battle every time and this team has really battled all year long. I’m very proud of them.”

After his team blew a 14-0 lead in the span of 15 seconds late in the second quarter, though, Santorio was less than pleased. Hamburg used good field position and a clever option pass to get on the board first and after a GI fumble on the ensuing kickoff it tied the game with a 35-yard pitch and catch from Nico Zarcone to Nick Testman.

“I did a lot of screaming those first three minutes (of halftime),” Santorio admitted with a smile afterwards.

His team would respond, though. The Vikings controlled the ball for most of the third quarter, scoring with just seconds remaining when quarterback Joel Klock hit wideout Nick Kellner in stride for a 33-yard touchdown strike on a critical 3rd-and-5 play.

“We saw something and checked off to the fly route,” Santorio explained. “And Joel threw a beautiful ball.”

The defense took over from there, holding Hamburg to just 26 yards of total offense in the second half. Brett Dlugosz and Jeff LaRiviere each had nine tackles and Scott Rogers added eight stops and a sack. Kellner had a pick in the waning seconds to seal it.

“Our defense was spectacular,” Santorio said.

Rogers added, “We never gave up. (Defensive coordinator Steve) Steck always tells us to be physical and have fun and that’s what we did. Words can’t describe how excited we are right now.”

After the Bulldogs turned it over on downs with 2:39 remaining, GI picked up three first downs before Klock put an exclamation point on the win with a 1-yard TD plunge. It was the Vikings’ third rushing touchdown of the night as LaLonde went 68 yards untouched on GI’s first offensive play from scrimmage and Dlugosz scored on a 1-yard dive late in the second quarter.

“The first game against Hamburg (a 26-3 loss) I had negative yards, but tonight the offensive line played incredible,” LaLonde said. “This is an unbelievable feeling. We dug our noses in and took it to them.”

Santorio agreed.

“We showed a lot of maturity and mental toughness in the second half,” he said. “We were physical and played with a lot of pride.”