The Tigers are 3-1 with Canton Timken coming to town Friday night.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- The beginning of high school football season brings high expectations and soaring spirits.
It was no different at The Rayen School.
"But to be sitting at 3-1 right now ...," Rayen coach Brian Shaner marveled. "We knew we had a good group of kids and the potential, but now that it's a reality, it's a nice accomplishment."
At the midpoint of the 2004 season, Rayen has become one of the hottest stories in the Mahoning Valley simply because the Tigers have become one of the hottest teams.
"It's like they punch the time clock and go to work. It's like that every day," Shaner said. "They live for the team. They have each other's backs no matter what happens."
Rayen's football program has struggled over the years. The Tigers haven't had a winning season since 1997, suffering through four straight 1-9 seasons from 1998-01.
"It was bad from the aspect that we were losing a lot of kids outside the city. It's hard to keep our kids in the city and wanting to play for Rayen," said Shaner, 32, the second-year head coach and the Tigers' former offensive coordinator.
"The main turnaround is keeping our kids and getting them to buy into what we say and not what the outside people say," Shaner added. "All they have to do is give us a chance."
After losing its season opener to Canfield, Rayen has won three straight games, including last week's 34-7 rout of Lima Senior.
"It's team unity," senior receiver Andreous Gillam said. "We all believe we can make it farther than last year, with everybody working together and without individual stats."
The Tigers look to continue their resurgence Friday night when they play host to Canton Timken (1-3) in the City Series opener at Stambaugh Stadium.
"There's a lot of hype around the school and community," said Shaner, whose team is sixth in the Division III, Region 11 computer ratings -- the top eight schools qualify for the playoffs.
"We just have to continue our focus with a week-to-week attitude," he added. "They buy into it. There's no bigheadedness out here. They just keep doing their job."
Rayen's defense, led by coordinator Dennis Parise, is the team's strength. The Tigers have allowed just 6.7 points in their three victories.
"We just have a tenacity that is hard for an opponent to be ready to see," Shaner said. "[Parise] is amazing. Every week he has a game plan to shut down what [the opponent] does best."
That gives Rayen's offense a chance to work.
"It sets the tone. Every time [an opponent] goes three-and-out, you have no choice but to do something as an offense," Rayen junior quarterback Ryan Wallace said. "We get out there and try to make something happen off the defense."
Shaner said the Tigers thrive off senior linebacker Derrick Slocum, who's only 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds "wet and with his shoulder pads on."
"He's probably the smallest kid on our defense, but he makes it happen every week," Shaner said. "When we need big plays, we know he's going to be there. There aren't many linebackers in the area I'd take over him."
There's another good one at Rayen. Freshman linebacker Gary Thornton has made an early impact, scoring key touchdowns against Ravenna and Lima.
"The kid's amazing," Shaner said. "You don't get many freshmen at that level who can come in here and have an impact like he does."
The Tigers have made overall improvement in the defensive backfield, embodied by junior safety Dwayne Smith, who has started since his freshman year.
"He can control the whole field from the safety position," Shaner said. "It's nice to watch him play, and it's nice to know we've got him for another year."
Wallace, Gillam and Smith key the Tigers' offense, which has a stable of backs and receivers providing their part in the team's comeback from years of turmoil.
"Losing made us better," Wallace said. "It made us want to win even more."