This will be a tough act to follow for the SUNY Cortland football team.
The Red Dragons displayed an uncanny knack for dramatic endings a year ago, when they won the regular season title in their first season as a member of the Empire 8 Conference en route to a sparkling 9-3 campaign.
Coach Dan MacNeill’s squad shared first place with St. John Fisher with matching 6-2 conference records, closed out the regular season beating Ithaca College for the sixth consecutive time in the Cortaca Jug game and then knocked off Salisbury 45-21 in the opening round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Though the season ended with 38-22 loss to Linfield in Oregon in the playoffs the following weekend, last year’s success provides plenty of optimism heading into Saturday’s non-conference season opener.
Cortland travels to take on Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, with kickoff slated for noon.
Cortland got off to a 5-0 start to last season, starting with beating Heidelberg 26-24 on a last play touchdown and featuring overtime escape against both Utica College and Hartwick College.
The offensive line and the front seven on defense have undergone changes heading into this year’s opening test at Heidelberg, though there is plenty of talent returning to fuel optimism. There is senior safety Carson Lassiter, who was named pre-season All-America by D3football.com and The Sporting News. There is senior quarterback Steven Ferreria, who threw for 3,127 yards and 29 touchdowns was was picked off only five times in a 11 starts.That’s why Cortland is ranked 17th in the D3football.com pre-season national poll.
“We are really working it hard, and the kids get the concept of trying to make it as simple as we can,” said MacNeill this week heading into this 20th year coaching his alma mater with a 128-69 overall record. “But you really have to work hard to make it simple, you really do.”
Cortland handled over-matched Alfred State in last weekend’s scrimmage session, of which MacNeill stated: “We really dominated, but then we should dominate that team. So they did exactly what they should do.
“We all know the next game is a whole different set of plumbing with regards of the type of program,” he added of upcoming foe Heidelberg. “They’re prepared for the challenge. There’s a good feel about it, and there should be.”
POINTS WIN GAMES: With Ferreira, top rusher Donny Davis and a flock of veteran receivers back in tow, no wonder Coach MacNeill says: “Points win games. We’re expecting them to score enough points, certainly.”
Senior Jon Mannix and junior Jake Smith are the top returning receivers. Mannix caught 55 passes for 985 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Smith latched onto 44 passes for 785 yards and nine touchdown. Both averaged 18 yards per catch.
Seniors Anthony Pintabona and Chris Osterman just add to the wide receiver depth.
Dependable senior tight end Josh Riley is dealing with some knee cartilage problems which kept him out of last week’s scrimmage, which means freshman Matthew DeBlaiso could see some early playing time.
Ferreira will run the show, with classmate Kyle Schneider a talented back-up who threw for 382 yards in a start against Framingham State a year ago. “He’s good, he’s good he’s good….” said MacNeill when talking of Ferreira. “And he can also managed the game pretty good.”
There is depth at running back starting with sophomore Davis, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound battering ram who rushed for 563 yards and five touchdowns in 2015. Sophomore Johnnie Akins brings a different set of skills to the position, as does quick-footed jitterbug sophomore Alex Wasserman who will also be returning kickoffs.
“We have a lot of good running backs and we’re using them all,” says MacNeill.
Junior center Dan Bach (6-1, 270) and senior right guard Chijoke Ezenyilimba (6-3, 305) are the only starters back on the offensive line.
Senior left tackle Thomas Cornelius (6-5, 285) was named a team captain, but will be making his first start against Heidelberg along with sophomore left guard Sean Gallagher (6-1, 275) and freshman Travis Alvarez (6-8, 270). Coach MacNeill raves about the potential of the athletic Alvarez.
DEFENSE GETS REBUILT: Carson Lassiter heads up an experienced secondary, and twin brother Layton is also back on the squad after taking last season off. Though listed as a linebacker, Layton Lassiter is pretty much a fifth defensive back as Coach MacNeill says the Red Dragons really have three down linemen and three linebackers up front in the scheme of things.
“We’re trying to get more speed on the field, like most teams are right now,” the coach says. “You take a look at anyone in the NFL and you have to get more skilled players on the field because that’s what the offense is doing. You have to match up better.”
Steady senior cornerback Mark DelPrete is back as a starter, and sophomore Isaac Hicks is at safety after seeing some playing time a year ago. Sophomore Max Jean starts at the other cornerback spot, where junior Matt Caputo will also be competing for playing time. Caputo’s field time will be limited Saturday for what MacNeill called a “team issue.”
Seniors Kevin Murray and Joe Sarno are the brand new starting ends on the defensive front for Heidelberg, though fellow senior Tom Hagan will also see time at Sarno’s spot — being knocked out of the starting lineup for Saturday because of a team disciplinary issue. Coach MacNeill feels both freshman nose guards — Ike Schannauer and Mike Curiel — have bright futures with the program.
Sophomore Kyle Richard and senior Matt Goodman are the new inside linebackers, Goodman moving over from being a fullback on offense. Though undersized at 5-foot-10 and 210-pounds, sophomore Marquise Marshall is an outside linebacker who can make plays.
Cortland’s kicking game is also potent with senior Shane Cronin handling field goals and punts.
EXPECTATIONS HIGH: Being the defending Empire 8 champions is not something that comes up often during practice often, but the Red Dragons always want to compete for a championship. Coach MacNeill prefers to take things one play at a time.
“There are goals, and they’re clear, but the goal in front of us right now is to win the kickoff, then win the next play and move through it like that,” he says. “I know that’s coach-speak, but that’s really the focus you have to keep your kids on. We hope we have them focused that way and their head is out of the clouds, but there definitely is an onus (to being defending champs) and I love that expectation.”
MacNeill also likes this team, pointing out every season is different.
“I like the growth and they’ve been responsive. That’s really what you need,” says MacNeill. “You want to make sure they’re totally responsive and not resistive to the suggestion of being elite. They’re responsive. We’re not there, we’re still working on it, but the kids are responsive. I like the attitude.”