N  I  A  G  A  R  A    G  A  Z  E  T  T  E

Rayhill sparks Vikings on defense, special teams

By Eric Keppeler

GRAND ISLAND — It might not be glamorous, but James Rayhill doesn’t care. Not as long as his Grand Island football Vikings keep winning.

The lanky junior toils in the trenches on the defensive line as an end. He’s the team’s long-snapper for punts and place-kicking. And he’s a special teams maven on kickoffs and punts.

And he loves what he does.

“Special teams is just as important as offense and defense, because it determines where the ball is going to be,” Rayhill said. “That changes the whole philosophy of how you’re going to play the game.”

Grand Island coach Dean Santorio has long been a believer in the power of special teams, and Rayhill — a first-year varsity player — recognized it as an avenue to get noticed and earn more playing time.

“Not only on special teams, but his attitude is to go 100 miles per hour, as hard as he can,” Santorio said. “You need guys like that on your special teams, and we do pay a lot of attention to our special teams. He’s taken that to heart and led the charge.”

The Vikings have been one of the most consistent football programs in Western New York, going to the Section VI playoffs in five of the last six years and advancing to the championship at Ralph Wilson Stadium in four of those years.

This year’s team is no exception, going 9-1 and claiming the Class A crown with a 20-14 victory Saturday over Division A-North rival Sweet Home.

“Some people just think special teams are automatic,” Rayhill said. “In the Sweet Home game, the offense and defense were at a standstill — but on special teams, we forced a couple of fumbles and we got the ball in their end. We ended up scoring off those, so I think it made a big difference.”

Rayhill has also made a difference on defense, where the line has welcomed his unique blend of size and quickness.

The Grand Island offense has been fairly consistent through the season, but the defense has been constant with its high level of play And with a number of uncomfortably close games this season, the team has needed that stability.

“James worked awfully hard during the off season, and now it’s paying off,” Santorio said. “We were hoping that he could fill one of those defensive end positions, and he’s exceeded our expectations. As a junior, he’s really been fantastic. It’s nice to have a big physical end, and it’s nice to have a quick end — and he can be both.”

Now Rayhill and his teammates have the chance to make Grand Island history. No Viking football team has ever made it past the Far Western Regionals, and they will get their second opportunity in three years to advance to the state semifinals in the Syracuse Carrier Dome.

Grand Island meets Section V champion Geneva at 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. John Fisher College’s Growney Stadium in Pittsford.

“At the beginning of the season, we had all the guys we needed — but we all knew we needed to work really hard,” Rayhill said. “We can’t take anything for granted — this is probably the highlight of our careers.”