Beating the heat was the first objective on the SUNY Cortland pre-season football agenda.
The defending Empire 8 Conference champions got the 2016 campaign underway on Sunday morning at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex, as the Red Dragons moved their scheduled afternoon workout up a handful of hours because of the heat and humidity in the day’s forecast.
Coach Dan MacNeill’s squad also worked out this morning before returning to their regularly scheduled practice routine in preparation for a Sept. 1 season-opening assignment, the Red Dragons traveling to Ohio for that Saturday afternoon non-conference contest against Heidelberg.
The early-morning opening session did not damper Cortland enthusiasm, which is the norm for a team anxious to build off last year’s 9-3 success story. Not only did the Red Dragons grab first place in their first season as a football-only member of the Empire 8, they grabbed a sixth consecutive victory over rival Ithaca College in the annual Cortaca Jug battle for Central New York bragging rights before coming up with a first round NCAA Division III tournament victory over Salisbury.
“It was good. So far it’s been a good camp,” said Coach MacNeill, as players reported Saturday before being put through their Sunday paces. “There’s a lot of new faces and they’re all making the transition easy. We have to keep establishing that good attitude.”
Last year’s success — which included pulling out dramatic victories over Heidelberg, Framingham State, Utica, Hartwick and Alfred — only adds to this year’s incentive.
“There’s a confidence that comes along with that, an expectation. And there’s a reason to strive for high excellence,” said MacNeill of last year’s 6-2 Empire 8 showing that earned a share of first place with St. John Fisher. Cortland then received the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament based on a regular season victory over those Cardinals.
As part of those expectations, Cortland was ranked 17th in the D3football.com pre-season national poll.
This is MacNeill’s 20th season as the head coach at his alma mater, where he was a defensive lineman and linebacker in his playing days. His Red Dragon squads have gone 128-69, those the most wins of any Cortland coach, and will be striving to reach the post-season for the 14th time under MacNeill’s direction.
DRAGON DATES: Practice this week will be capped by the annual Red-White Scrimmage this Saturday afternoon at the Stadium Complex. The Red Dragons will also be hosting Alfred State in a pre-season scrimmage slated for 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon, Aug. 26.
Two days after that scrum, on Sunday, Aug. 28, a “Meet the Red Dragons” gathering will be held from noon until 12:45 p.m. at the Stadium Complex.
Free to fans, players and coaches will be available for autographs and pictures while free team posters will be handed out. The team will also perform drills during that session.
Anyone attending will receive free admission to the Red Dragons’ home opener against Framingham State on Sept. 10. The Empire 8 opener is the following weekend, when St. John Fisher arrives for an early-season Sept. 17 showdown.
Both of those home contests are slated for noon starts.
QB DEPTH: Among those players returning from a year ago is senior quarterback Steven Ferreira, who threw for 3,127 yards last autumn. He had 29 touchdown passes and was picked off just five times in a dozen starts, and comes to camp more comfortable with Cortland’s offensive scheme.
“It’s huge,” said Coach MacNeill of having Ferreira back for this second season at Cortland after transferring from Stony Brook. “Having Kyle Schneider back too, we are really strong at the quarterback position and we have some depth at the quarterback position.”
Schneider passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns in a wild 61-49 win at Framingham State last year when Ferreira was sidelined with a concussion.
MacNeill also heaped praise on Red Dragon receivers, as the top four pass catchers last season were all juniors — Jon Mannix (55 catches-985 yards), Nick Wagner (54-786), Jake Smith (44-785) and tight end Josh Riley (27-291).
THE NEW GUYS: Coach MacNeill was unable to put an exact number on how many freshmen took past in Sunday’s workout, but he was impressed by what he saw.
“There were a slew of them,” is how the coach put it. “We tested them today and they’re a very athletic, very fast group of kids… some of them to the point where they could play a part of travelers.”
Travelers are those players who make the traveling squad, which is fewer than those who get to suit up for home games.
“It remains to be seen, but this is a really impressive group character-wise. They made a good first impression,” added MacNeill of his rookies.
COACH WELCH SWAN SONG: When Ithaca visits Cortland for the annual Cortaca Jug game on Nov. 12 this fall, it will be the final regular season game in the career of Bombers head coach Mike Welch.
A former IC player, Welch has been the head coach since 1994 on the South Hill. During those 22 seasons, he has gone 164-73 with eight Empire 8 titles to his credit.
“What a great servant he’s been to football, and I’m sure it gives an added incentive to his program,” noted MacNeill of Welch, a 1973 Ithaca graduate who played and later served as an assistant under legendary coach Jim Butterfield.