January 20, 2022

Red Dragons fall in second round

Rich Barnes Contributed Photo/Rich Barnes Photography

SUNY Cortland’s Brees Segala is pressured by RPI’s Conor Ahern during their NCAA second-round matchup.

With just under three minutes to play, it looked hopeless. SUNY Cortland had just watched RPI score its third touchdown of the game to take a 21-7 lead in their NCAA Division 3 second-round matchup at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.

But this was no time to fold.

Starting from their own 22-yard line, Cortland, led by quarterback Brees Segala, engineered a six-play, 78-yard drive that included three receptions to J.J. Laap — the third resulting in a 29-yard touchdown toss to the back left of the end zone with 1:40 to play. The extra point made it 21-14.

Could the Red Dragons pull off a miracle finish? For a few pulsating seconds, it appeared they could.

With only 1:40 left, an onside kick was the only choice … and miraculously, Joshua Cordero recovered it for the Red Dragons.

If this were a Hollywood script, Cortland would have found a way to score the tying touchdown, but this was not Hollywood.

On the first play of the drive, Segala was intercepted by RPI’s Francis Perry to seal the game and send the Engineers to the Elite Eight.

“I stepped up into the pocket and I saw Derek Cruz working across the middle of the field and I let the ball go, but it was a bang-bang play,” Segala said. “It’s unfortunate it has to end that way but we came out and we played hard and at the end of the day that’s all that matters to me.”

Segala faced a lot of pressure all game from the Engineers, who have been a very successful defensive team all season and made a number of key plays on the defensive end, which turned out to be the difference.

“Coming into this game, RPI has let up six touchdown passes all year,” Segala said. “They’re a really good defense, and we knew that coming in. I don’t think they did anything to really trick us, but they’re a physical team, they got some big guys up front and they were able to create some pressure. I think I got a little jittery sometimes and moved around too much. We were going to make some plays but at the end of the day they made a couple more than us.”

The game was expected to be close and low scoring. For the Red Dragons, however, it was a very different type of a game for a team that averaged 41.4 points per game, but the Engineers did what they had to do in order to walk away victorious.

“We knew it was going to be a tightly contested game that would come down to a play or two,” Cortland head coach Curt Fitzpatrick said. “Today, we were just a play or two short and we needed to do everything just a little bit better.”

The game was level at 7 heading into halftime, and on the first drive of the third quarter, the Red Dragons were moving the ball well. On a good slant route, Segala connected with Cruz for a 19-yard gain, but Cruz fumbled and RPI took over.

A couple possessions later, the Engineers took the lead when George Marinopoulos found Peter Lombardi on a 4-yard touchdown pass.

The defense of the Engineers then continued to make stop after stop anytime the Red Dragons tried to get something going offensively.

With 2:54 left in the fourth quarter, RPI’s Dylan Burnett, who rushed 32 times for 155 yards, blew through the middle for a 42-yard touchdown run that put the Engineers ahead, 21-7.

At the time, the Cruz fumble did not have much significance. Looking back, however, it was a big turning point for the Engineers.

“It definitely was a momentum shift,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was our opening drive of the third quarter. We were moving the ball well. But I would throw the ball to Derek Cruz the very next play; he’s a heck of player and has been such a warrior for us. It was definitely a momentum killer, but whether it was the particular play or any play, any turnover hurts. We lost the turnover battle today.”

Cortland put together a wonderful season despite the loss as it finished 11-1 while outscoring its opponents 497-126. The Red Dragons were Empire8 champions, they reclaimed the Cortaca Jug, Segala was named the 2021 Empire 8 Offensive Player of the Year, teammate Dylan Dubuque, a senior linebacker, was named Defensive Player of the Year, and sophomore defensive lineman Nick Lardaro was the E8 Rookie of the Year. The SUNY Cortland coaching staff, led by head coach Fitzpatrick also claimed the E8 Coaching Staff of the Year award.

“I’m really proud of the way our guys battled until the end,” Fitzpatrick said. “These guys, especially the seniors, have been working hard all year. Obviously, it hurts when you lose but this group has nothing to be ashamed of. We are proud of the effort we have shown all year.”