CHAMPAIGN – It's a late October afternoon and St. Thomas More senior running back Dylan Ray is on the football field, braving the elements on a chilly day. But for Ray, there's nowhere else he'd rather be.
That's because at this time last year, Ray was hanging up his helmet and shoulder pads. Football season was over. The Sabers had just wrapped up a disappointing season in which they finished 1-8.
"Everybody was just so letdown after last year," Ray said. "We were all just looking ahead to next year, and that's a long time to be waiting for a football game."
The waiting proved to be worth it for the Sabers, as they completed a remarkable turnaround this season, going 7-2. Ray's efforts have had a lot to do with St. Thomas More's success. He's run for a team-high 946 yards and 10 touchdowns, which is impressive in its own right, but even more so when you consider he switched to running back from receiver midway through last season.
Ray began his career as a running back, but after sustaining a series of injuries as a result of taking so many hits, St. Thomas More coach Dan Hennessey moved the speedster to receiver. But midway through last year's 1-8 campaign, Hennessey decided it was time to get Ray more touches.
"He's just such an explosive runner," Hennessey said. "He's quick, and he's got some speed. On average I like to get the ball in his hands 20 to 25 times a game. He's the main man in the backfield."
Despite only playing half a season at running back as a junior, Ray ran for 652 yards – tops on the team.
"It wasn't really that hard for me moving back to running back," Ray said. "I already pretty much knew the position, I just had to get used to it again. It was probably more of an adjustment for me switching to wide receiver than anything else."
Ray has adjusted to his old position well, but it remains to be seen how the Sabers will adjust to their role as playoff contenders. They're back in the playoffs for the first time since 2003. And Friday's game against Wilmington will be the first time in its history that St. Thomas More has hosted a postseason game.
"It's been quite a change, 360 (degrees)," Hennessey said. "These guys have just been great. They were very disappointed with 1-8, and I have to say they've done a great job."