Saturday afternoon marked Grand Island's first home football game since the passing of Gene Masters. For Vikings coaches and players who were among the thousands touched by Masters during his 44-year coaching career, it was the first time they took to the field named for the coach since they lost him. So it was certainly fitting that Grand Island found a way to win.
A first-quarter touchdown would hold up the rest of the afternoon, as the Vikings overcame five turnovers to beat Pioneer, 7-6, and clinch the Class A North title at Masters Field. The last time fourth-ranked Western New York large school Grand Island and No. 7 Pioneer met, the Panthers won the Section VI Class A title, 14-0, last November in the final game of Masters' 248-win career.
"It's been a real rough two weeks on everybody -- everyone involved, not just the players -- the coaching staff, the teachers in the district, the community," said Grand Island coach Dean Santorio, the successor to Masters, who had been the school's only coach until his retirement. "We've dedicated the season to him, and I just tell the kids, let's carry out the season the way we said we would -- let's not say we're going to dedicate the season and not do what we're supposed to or are expected to do."
A short tribute prior the game Saturday recalled what few of those in attendance needed to be reminded of -- that Masters passed away Oct. 8 at age 70 of a heart attack. A moment of silence followed, and commemorative programs were handed out at the field that was named for the coach in 1991.
"After the funeral, we decided we were going to dedicate the season to him," said senior quarterback Mick Gallagher. "He started everything. This is all for him, and hopefully we can give him some more."
On the last play of the first quarter, Gallagher found senior Steve Krahel with a 20-yard pass across the middle. Krahel got a nice block from sophomore receiver Mike Feathers and sped down the right sideline for an 85-yard touchdown. Feathers' kicked the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Pioneer scored its touchdown on its second possession after halftime, as senior fullback Jon Hall found a nice hole off left tackle and ran 47 yards for the score. However, the two-point conversion was stopped when GI senior Steve West sacked Pioneer junior quarterback Chad Lindsley.
The Panthers couldn't capitalize on two first-half Vikings fumbles. They continued to receive extra chances, but each time Grand Island would make a big defensive play.
Pioneer got to the GI 25 after an interception, but senior Dave Blonski wrapped up junior halfback Mike Muth on fourth-and-2 just before the end of the third quarter. Pioneer later moved to the GI 30 after a fumble, and again Blonski came through, knocking down a halfback option pass thrown by Muth on fourth-and-6.
Another interception gave the Panthers life with two minutes left in the game. Pioneer moved to the Grand Island 43, but Ben Cooper sacked Lindsley on third-and-10 to move the Panthers back to the 50, where a fourth-down pass went incomplete.
"We found a way to win with those turnovers," said Santorio. "And against a good football team, that's almost impossible to do. Luckily, we hung in there defensively."
Grand Island closes its regular season at home next week against Lake Shore. By clinching the division title, the Vikings earned a first-round home game, so there will be two more chances to hand out the commemorative program at Masters Field. The cover reads, "2001 Grand Island Vikings Football: Dedicated to Gene Masters."
"It's been hard with him gone," said Cooper, "but we'd like to win for him."