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September 05, 2008

 

Red Dragons expect to contend ... again

Dragons

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland senior quarterback Ray Miles returns after passing for 2,157 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

Having shared first place in the conference standings for the past three football seasons, SUNY Cortland continues to be an ambitious bunch.
Heading into another promising season, this team fully expects to play the role of a title contender once again.
“There is a tremendous confidence that that brings, even a little swagger, and that’s a good thing,” said head coach Dan MacNeill of this recent run of Red Dragon success. “Building confidence is a hard thing. Having confidence is a good thing, but you have to make sure that confidence is played out just right.”
The danger of overconfidence is always a concern for coaches such as MacNeill, who is 69-44 starting his 12th season at his alma mater. But with 14 starters returning, including savvy seniors such as quarterback Ray Miles and inside linebacker Jim Smith, he hopes this team is mature and focused enough avoid any mental pratfalls.
“You have to be tough-minded enough to know you still have to go out and perform,” says MacNeill.
The first performance for these Red Dragons arrives Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., Cortland traveling to Morrisville State to get the New Jersey Athletic Conference season underway. The Red Dragons are looking to build off last year’s 8-3 record, when they were co-champions with The College of New Jersey and posted an ECAC post-season bowl victory.
That will be the first of three away games on the Red Dragon schedule for this month. The first home game is not until Oct. 4, when Buffalo State visits the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
“It is what it is,” said MacNeill of that scheduling quirk, the Red Dragons making trips to Rowan on Sept. 20 and Kean on Sept. 27 before getting to play in their own backyard.
The first nine games on the Red Dragon schedule are all conference affairs, now that Morrisville and SUNY Brockport have joined the 10-team NJAC. Then comes the 50th anniversary of the Cortaca Jug game on Nov.15 when Ithaca College comes to town to renew that storied rivalry.
Both Cortland and Ithaca are ranked in various pre-season Division III polls, too — which could make this year’s game even more special.
Cortland scrimmaged Wilkes College at home last Saturday and played well. Fumbling away a punt deep in its own territory in the early going and giving up a long sideline pass that led to the lone touchdown scored by Wilkes were the only stumbles.
“Take those two things away it was a good game,” said MacNeill of that tune-up, happy with the way his defensive line got after things and with a running game that helped support Miles by averaging just under five yards per carry.
MILES WILL DIRECT the offense after having stepped in as a starter the past two seasons following injuries to Alex Smith — who is also back with the team serving as an assistant coach helping out with the quarterbacks.
Having former Cortland High career-passing leader Dan Pitcher around as a backup, Pitcher coming home after transferring from Division I Colgate, provides depth and peace of mind for Coach MacNeill.
“Dan Pitcher, he’s an awful good football player. So that takes a lot of pressure off and gives us depth at that position,” the coach said. And there are two Pitchers on this squad. Younger brother Matt Pitcher is a freshman back-up offensive lineman.
Miles, out of Port Byron, threw for 2,157 yards and 19 touchdowns after Smith re-injured a surgically repaired knee in the first quarter of last year’s season opener against Morrisville. More important is how the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Miles has grown more and more comfortable handling a complex and multiple Cortland offense. “Now he’s eager to manipulate that offense instead of having the offense manipulate him,” is how Coach MacNeill puts it.
Senior tailback and team captain Andrew Giuliano also returns after rushing for a team high 740 yards and six touchdowns in 2007. Sturdy sophomore Cory Russell out of LaFayette and quick-footed sophomore Will Loeb will also get their carries.
Those backs will run behind senior fullback Dave Murphy — who is backed by Dom Sair, the younger brother of former All-America safety and NCAA Division III wrestling champion Stef Sair — and a veteran offensive line of senior blockers. Those beefy veterans are Sean James (305 pounds) and Justin Kindt (315) at tackles, Joe Weinstein (280) and James Mignone (320) at guards and John Schillinger (275) at center.
Three seniors will play key roles in the passing game, too, starting with wideouts Eric Hajnos and Lansing’s Zacc Guaragno. Hajnos caught 30 passes a year ago, four of those touchdown grabs. Taking over at tight end will be Jeffrey Lang out of Dryden, the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder having been a wide receiver in past seasons.
There is depth wide receiver, too, with Wayne Wheeler out of Jordan-Elbridge and running back Giuliano’s younger brother Anthony around. Junior Derrick Woodard out of Whitesboro has also looked good in pre-season, and will return punts for the Red Dragons.
THE CORTLAND DEFENSE may have the top three linebackers around in Smith, sophomore Brian Haas and graduate student Josh Jablonski — who returns to the team after a year’s absence when his senior season in 2006 was cut short by an ankle injury. Though sophomore Timothy Dorsey out of Monroe-Woodbury is the slated starter at outside linebacker, Jablonski may step into that role come Saturday.
Haas, the younger brother of former Cortland All-America defensive tackle Brian Haas, had a stellar freshman season where he led the team with 105 tackles and three sacks. Smith was the second leader tackler with 79 stops and also had three sacks, while Jablonski is already the school career record holder in blocked kicks.
Senior defensive end Ben Nagle, the fourth team captain, returns after having nine quarterback sacks a year ago and earning MVP honors in Cortland’s ECAC win over Union College.
Along with Nagle, seniors Lou Crispo (6-1, 260) and Richard Rolo (5-10, 265) make Cortland a tough team to run against. Sophomore Bobby Somerville or junior Bryan Wiley will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Nagle. Senior Terry Eason will also work into the defensive line rotation.
Physical senior safety Matt Berman is the only returning starter in the secondary. Berman had 49 tackles and an interception in just seven games, missing an early chunk of the 2007 season with a shoulder injury. Junior Jamell Scott and sophomore Joe Lopez are the new starting cornerbacks, with sophomore Chris Hanlon winning the free safety spot.
IN SPECIAL TEAMS play, Scott and Loeb will return kickoffs. Woodard will handle punt returns, something Scott and Loeb can also do.
Lang will take over the kicking chores from graduated standout Matthew Mintz, while graduate student Derek Ziders is back on the team to ease any worries about long snaps.
Special teams are always crucial to success and will be needed for an ambitious bunch of Red Dragons. And there’s nothing wrong with high expectations, or as Coach MacNeill says: “It’s fun to chase that challenge.”