January 14, 2011

Rayner Shine: Middlebury D-Man Belies Size

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Whether he's on the football or lacrosse field, Middlebury junior Matt Rayner has a way of surprising his opponents.

The moment he toes the line of scrimmage, Matt Rayner can tell he's being sized up. A wide receiver on the Middlebury football team, Rayner understands it's the cornerback's duty to figure out what he's capable of – to see what this 5-foot-10, 180-pound receiver can do when the ball is in the air.

And then Rayner is gone.

At the snap, the All-NESCAC receiver is in the clear, catching one of the 45 passes he snagged this past fall, or maybe one of his team-leading six touchdowns. Or maybe he's laying a key block to spring a running back. Regardless, the first time they tangle, it's typically the cornerback who has to adjust.

Five months later, Rayner undergoes the same test.

Ever since he became a starting defenseman for the Panthers' men's lacrosse team as a freshman, Rayner has been considered small for his position. Big attackmen and bruising middies who play Middlebury have looked at Rayner as the weakest link.

Before the first offensive set, anyway.

"It's always a challenge going against the big guys in the NESCAC who'll try to back you down," said Rayner. "Sometimes I can't stop the big guys from backing down, but being in position often times is even better. I feel like I can handle my own against them. Sometimes they get a little surprised."

"He's very strong," said Middlebury coach Dave Campbell. "He doesn't have a whole lot of body fat on there. I don't know what the percentage is, but he's pretty cut up. He's not the tallest guy in the world, but he can be physical. He has very good feet. We don't get caught up in getting huge defenseman here. We want guys who can extend and put pressure on the opponent, and he does a great job of that."

"I think it came out of necessity," Rayner said. "I'm not a huge take-away guy. I'm not one of those 6-foot-3 long poles that can go over the head all the time. Speed and being in position to make guys create offense somewhere else is what I'm trying to do most."

It has paid off. Rayner was one of two sophomores last year to make the All-NESCAC first team – a club traditionally reserved for upperclassmen. Rayner's presence on the Middlebury campus, no less the lacrosse field, was anything but a sure thing.

A standout in football from his initial years at Andover (Mass.) High School, Rayner said he was dead-set on playing football at the college level for most of his high school career. With his athletic talents and smarts, he toyed with the idea of going Division I at an Ivy or Patriot League school.

And then he had his senior year in lacrosse.

"When I had a little bit more success in lacrosse, I definitely wanted to play both," he said. "The possibility of playing two sports at a school like Middlebury was a selling factor for me. The fact that I was able to play both at a competitive level in football, and playing lacrosse for a national championship every year, was something that definitely pushed it over the edge."

Rayner was sold, as was the Panther football staff, but Campbell was still unsure. Because the lacrosse recruiting calendar is earlier than most sports, the lacrosse staff had already wrapped up its Class of 2012. When an athletic two-sport kid from a public school showed up on the radar, there wasn't much time for evaluation.

"We weren't sure when we recruited him," admitted Campbell, who is 52-19 in four years at Middlebury with four NCAA tournament appearances. "Then we saw him out there in a game situation and we knew he was ready. It was apparent to us he could play."

"There was definitely a learning curve for all the freshmen coming in," Rayner said. "The speed was definitely a step up. I came in and played in the bubble, figuring out the system, which was much more complex than high school. By the time we got out there, everyone was up to speed. As it turned out, there was a spot that was open and I was lucky to jump in right away."

That first year, he played all 18 games, including the three NCAA tournament games. Last year, Rayner added toughness to his strength and speed. Out for the NESCAC quarterfinal win over Amherst with a sprained ankle suffered in the regular season finale, Rayner wasn't about to miss the semifinals.

"I don't think anyone thought he'd be ready for the following weekend at Tufts and sure enough, he played against Bowdoin and then Tufts in the championship game," Campbell said. "He was playing on a bum wheel and he was still one of the best players out there. Just toughing through it and not saying anything. He just gutted it out. That's just the way he is."

It's part of Rayner's backstory. Every game, whether on the football or lacrosse field, someone overlooks him because of his size. In lacrosse, it's usally an attackman salivating at the prospect of going against a long pole who looks like a FOGO.

They don't realize until after the game that the hunter became the hunted.

"It says a lot if you can take on the other team's best player and still succeed," Rayner said in his usual level tone. "Even if I'm not defending the top guy, I'm looking to make as much impact as I can. Individually speaking, I want to take on the top guy, just like our teams want to take on the best in the NESCAC and the country. That's what we're trying to do."

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