CRUNCH FEATURE: GI junior QB leads the Vikings into the Section VI Class A playoffs

By Nate Beutel/
Greater Niagara Newspapers

GRAND ISLAND — Throughout their younger days, Joe Oliverio and Matt Klock hurled fastballs to one another as the battery for many Island baseball teams.

They even continue to do so for the Grand Island varsity baseball team as Klock is one of the Vikings’ top pitchers and Oliverio mans the backstop.

As for football, the roles are reversed as Oliverio handles the quarterbacking duties and Klock lines up at wide receiver. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Battling for the spot

After an impressive freshman campaign and what GI coach Dean Santorio termed as a “really nice” offseason, Oliverio was brought up the varsity and offered an opportunity to compete for the starting quarterback spot with junior Klock. With both players neck and neck prior to last year’s season opener, Santorio went with Klock and his extra year of experience.

“I was the young guy, so I just practiced hard and did what coach wanted me to do,” Oliverio said this week.

Then in the middle of the year, Klock went down against Lewiston-Porter and suffered a broken leg — ending his season. In stepped Oliverio, who went through some struggles at times, but also impressed the GI coaching staff.

“Overall, he did some really nice things for us and showed that could do the job,” Santorio said.

Oliverio added that while he certainly didn’t want his opportunity to come via injury, he felt as though his playing time gave him a greater opportunity to learn certain defensive schemes and coverages while also mastering the offense.

Then as Klock returned fully healthy for this season, the age-old question of whether you lose your position because of injury popped up. And Santorio quickly responded with a stern “no,” but did add that both players would be once again given a chance to compete for the spot. So, Oliverio and Klock both got to work in the offseason and performed outstanding during minicamps, passing leagues and college camps. But for Oliverio, he felt he already had a good idea which way Santorio was leaning.

“I thought form the start he was going to start Matt,” Oliverio said. “It was frustrating and it gets to you after a while, but you’ve got to stick with it.”

Santorio denies having the set notion in his mind that Klock was the starter before this year, but did state that Oliverio was certainly ready at any time.

The chance finally comes

And Oliverio did saw action in each of GI’s first four games. In fact, he led the Vikings to a couple of touchdown drives in those contests with his pin-point accuracy throwing the ball.

Even though GI had rebounded from an 0-2 start to get back to .500 at 2-2, it seemed as if the offense was still missing a certain spark. So as the Vikings got set to travel to Class A North preseason front-runner Albion, Santorio decided it was finally time to give Oliverio the shot he’d been awaiting for two seasons.

“Coach told me the Monday before the Albion game that I was going to start,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous, I was excited.”

His performance certainly showed his composure as he went 10-for-18 for 184 yards and two touchdowns as the Vikings pulled the upset.

Oliverio hasn’t looked back since as he’s completed 40-of-65 passes for 747 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. He said his favorite play is the comeback route he throws to wide receiver Alex Neutz.

“Joe’s always shown a lot of composure and poise,” Santorio said. “He knows he’s not much of runner, so I think that’s why he stands in there so tall and tries to deliver it as much as possible. He’s got a lot of confidence and he’s playing well right now.”

Oliverio also has a new weapon to throw it around to on the perimeter. You guessed it — Klock. The tandem even hooked up for a TD in last week’s loss to Williamsville East.

“He such a great athlete, so I’m glad he’s been able to play receiver and he’s real good out there, too,” Oliverio said.

Santorio agreed.

“You never want to see something like this ruin a friendship and I think Matt getting work in at receiver and playing well has helped develop that relationship again,” he said.

Looking forward, not back

Last week’s ugly loss to Williamsville East withstanding — Oliverio did throw for 200 yards and two TDs by the way — the Vikings have been one of the most physical teams in Western New York throughout the entire year. That style will meet Cheektowaga and an undefeated squad that features a number of athletically-gifted athletes in today’s Class A semifinal contest.

Santorio has been hinting all week that the Warriors should expect to see a lot of running backs Alex Webb and Eddie Weiser. And that’s understandable since the Warriors allowed close to 300 yards on the ground to Iroquois last week. But after studying portions of film, Oliverio believes GI could also stretch the field a bit with a few deep balls to Neutz, Lance Robinson or even Klock.

That being said, both player and coach agreed that winning is the top goal and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to do so.

“We’re willing to throw it 25 times and we’re willing to run it 50 times — we do what the coverage allows us to do,” Santorio said. “Normally, though, we want a good run-pass balance.”

And just to peak ahead to next year, Oliverio will certainly again have to prove himself as the team’s quarterback. Sure Klock is graduating but younger brother Joel, another GI pitcher, is set to move up to the varsity and perhaps set up another Oliverio vs. Klock debate.

“You’re just thankful you have two guys capable of playing the position,” Santorio said when prompted of his QB situation.

Oliverio, meanwhile, just chuckled and said, “Joel’s a good kid.”