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November 8, 2012

 

A grid rivalry like no other

CortacaBob Ellis/staff photographer
The two Cortaca jugs sit in a trophy case in SUNY Cortland’s Hall of Fame Room.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

SUNY Cortland is pretty pleased Pete Furey likes the color red.
Otherwise, the senior cornerback could have been outfitted in Ithaca College blue and white for the 54th annual Cortaca Jug football festivities that get underway at noon Saturday before the usual sold out packed house at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
Since father John Furey is an IC graduate, it would seem natural for him to have followed in dad’s footsteps. And his father did try to be persuasive towards that goal.
“It was between Ithaca and Cortland, it came down to those choices. I wore red in high school. I love red,” said Furey with a smile, referring to his Niskayuna High scholastic days outside of Albany.
“Really though, it was Cortland’s winning attitude and worth ethic,” Furey added for the reasons he ended up with Coach Dan MacNeill’s Red Dragons. “Coach Mac was a great guy and when I came to visit he made me feel comfortable. And all the other coaches and players.... it just seemed like a great atmosphere.”
So Furey became a Red Dragon and team captain, and came up with the interception and 75-yard touchdown return that helped rally Cortland past Kean in a 31-17 victory back on Oct. 27. All that did was give Cortland a seventh consecutive victory, a regular season New Jersey Athletic Conference title and a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
It’s little side stories like this that helps add to the special atmosphere of the Cortaca Jug — once labeled “The Biggest Little Game in America” by Sports Illustrated.
On the flip side of Furey’s situation, starting Ithaca senior center Nathaniel Hemingway nearly ended up coming to Cortland. The Staten Island native and cousin Kyle Nesbett — who was with the Red Dragons for three seasons before going into law enforcement — were both accepted at Cortland and toyed with the idea of sticking together.
Hemingway eventually settled on being close to his relative as an Ithaca student, and had no idea what this football rivalry was all about.
“I didn’t know what it really meant. I just knew we’d be close together with me at Ithaca,” said Hemingway. “Then when I got here I said ‘This is nuts.’ The first Cortaca I played in I said, ‘Wow. This is a crazy experience.’ I’ve never seen so many people like that before.
“It’s crazy to know there are thousands of people, not only at the game but thousands more outside the game, focused on you,” he added. “There’s even an event called CortaCal, where people gather in California to watch the game. It’s crazy that that many people are focusing on you at that point of time and watching you play that game. It’s just a great experience and I love it.”
THE CORTACA KEY is not getting swept away by the surroundings, even though nationally-ranked Cortland (7-1) needs a victory to nail down a first-round home game in the NCAA tournament while Ithaca (6-3) needs a victory to be in position to play in the post-season, too.
Furey, who attended Cortaca Jug contests before being a player, can provide some advice to his Red Dragon teammates.
“I just tell them it’s going to be a big stage. You can’t lie. It’s a big stage and probably an experience you might never experience again once you graduate from here,” said Furey. “But you have to maintain focus on the game, bottom line. Focus on the game, and play your heart out like it’s any other game. Because really, it is like any other game except there’s a hype to it. Two teams going at it, you battle like usual.”
Ithaca College interim head coach Mark McDonough — who will direct the team for the fourth time since head coach Mike Welch underwent bypass heart surgery midway through this season — knows what this game is all about having been a stellar Bombers linebacker involved in wins over Cortland in 2000 and 2001.
“To be able to understand the history helps, no question,” said McDonough.
“More than anything else, we have to focus on the Cortland State team that’s going to be across the field,” added McDonough. “You can’t start worrying about the environment and things like that, you have to worry about the team you’re going to play. The environment is good and all that, it’s a big part of the tradition, but the kids have to stay focused on the football.”
That’s a common theme from the participants, including a pair of Cortland offensive stalwarts.
“There’s going to be a lot of distractions, but once you get on the field it’s just another game.You have to go out there and do your job,” said senior offensive guard Randy Bloom.
“It’s as important as any other game, it’s just on a little bigger stage this time,” added junior running back Justin Autera. “We’re going to do what we do and hopefully come out with a win.”
THESE TWO SCHOOLS have played every season since 1948, though the Cortaca Jug became part of the mix in 1959 when captains Tom Decker of Cortland and Dick Carmean of Ithaca co-conspired to add a jug to the proceedings. The rivalry that Ithaca leads 34-19 now has two Cortaca Jugs with the scores printed on the sides for the victors to possess.
Cortland has won the last two games, including last year’s 27-3 victory before an announced crowd of 9,700 fans at Butterfield Stadium in Ithaca. That outcome — Cortland’s largest margin of victory since a 41-13 home win in 1996 — is not the norm in a series that in recent seasons has produced memorable down-to-the-wire battles. Ten of the last 15 games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
“A lot of times it means something, making it to the playoffs or getting a bowl game on top of the bragging rights,” noted Cortland senior defensive end Vaughn Labor. Knowing a couple of kids from his sister’s class at Norwich who played at Ithaca , Labor heard some Cortaca Jug stories before getting to experience the real thing.
“Walking out on the field for the first time, I was on the special teams for a game in Ithaca, and there were a thousand people screaming. I was, needless to say, a little nervous,” recalled Labor.
“I mean, just being in the game the past couple of years you learn how to control those emotions. Still, when you walk out there and see red on one side and blue on the other side, it’s a great feeling. It really gets you going and ready for the game.”

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