November 19, 2010
Dragons learn all about the Gulls
Hosting NCAA first round game Saturday
Towards the end of a team meeting last Sunday evening, after the film review of the Cortaca Jug victory over Ithaca College had concluded, SUNY Cortland defensive coordinator Jason Rebrovich was ready to talk about the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The assistant coach admitted he did not know all that much about the Endicott Gulls, the Red Dragons’ noontime visitors on Saturday in the opening round of the national tournament.
That’s when the players Rebrovich was addressing pulled out printouts of Endicott’s season statistics and other pertinent information about the New England Football Conference champions. They had already done their homework.
“That’s a seasoned team,” said head coach Dan MacNeill when recalling that moment. “You kind of hope they’re not caught up in the Cortaca aftermath. And they all had the stats on Endicott so they were all ahead of us as far as our worries, certainly. That kind of captures where our kids are.”
Of course the Red Dragons (9-1) know all about the Gulls (9-2) by now, know how the Massachusetts school will be coming to town riding a four-game winning streak including a 38-35 victory over Maine Maritime in last weekend’s NEFC championship game.
They know about the passing abilities of junior quarterback Phil Knopoka, a third-year starter who was 24-for-34 throwing the football against Maine Maritime for 255 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That gives the six-footer from Connecticut 1,984 passing yards and 19 touchdowns on the season and an endorsement from Cortland’s MacNeill.“The quarterback is as good a passer as the Ithaca kid,” said MacNeill, referring to Ithaca QB Rob Zappia who threw for 271 yards in a 20-17 Cortaca Jug loss to the Red Dragons.
They know all about running back Mike Lane, who has rushed for 1,203 yards and seven touchdowns. The diminutive 5-foot-7 junior gets his own endorsement from Endicott head coach J.B. Wells, who says: “Lane is a great back. I tell the offensive line all the time, he’s a little guy so you only have to make a little room for him.”
They know all about an offense that since a 10-3 loss at Plymouth State back on Oct. 16 has averaged 34 points per game in four consecutive victories that earned the school’s first trip to the NCAAs.
Defensively, they’ve heard about junior defensive end Kevin Egan, who was headed to Division I Rutgers before ending up at Endicott. He has a team-high 85 tackles including eight quarterback sacks. And there’s linebacker Nick Scozzaro, a Florida kid who has relatives in the Boston area, who displays this team’s grit by performing with a broken wrist.
ENDICOTT HAS ONLY been playing Division III football since 2003. Coach Wells gives credit to his current junior class for the Gulls success, making a progression from going 3-7 in 2008 and 5-5 a year ago to this year’s nine-win success story.
Part of that process of improving is trying to schedule tougher competition, Rensselaer having become a non-league regular season opponent for the Gulls of late.
“We try to play up, like playing against Rensselaer. They’re a step up, but Cortland’s a step up from that,” said Coach Wells. “We’re getting closer to where we want to be, and now you tell your kids ‘Guess what guys? Now in the NCAAs you get to measure yourself against the best.’”
Endicott takes the same approach Cortland does as far as preparing for a team.
“I think the key to our success, we haven’t been worried about our opponent but more concerned with ourselves, how we control ourselves, because we can’t control Cortland State,” says Wells. “I have no misgivings about the challenge we have in front of us, but every time I’ve asked the kids to do something they’ve stepped up and have gotten the job done.”
They have to get it down against a Cortland team that is seeded second in this eight-team region, where perennial power and No. 2 nationally-ranked Mount Union is the top seed. The Gulls are seeded seventh.
Going up against Cortland’s defense, ranked No. 1 in the country in allowing just 7.8 points per game, is the big challenge the Gulls face.
“We’re looking at it, how do we get a first down?” said Coach Wells after going over films of the Red Dragons, each team exchanging three game films. “They’ve got players. It comes down to they have good players. Are they blitzing there or just reading the play that quickly? It’s hard to tell, they’re that good.”
CORTLAND HAS BEEN in six previous NCAA playoffs, including three since 2005.
“It’s neat to have some wisdom, some kids who have been through this so they kind of know what to expect,” said MacNeill, Cortland winning a pair of NCAA home games two years ago before losing to eventual champion Mount Union in the quarterfinals.
“From a coach’s prospective, it’s neat to have that wisdom,” he added. “From a player’s perspective, it’s kind of like final exams are over with, the job is over with, now it’s icing in the cake. It’s kind of an euphoric time that not many people in the country are enjoying.”
The Red Dragons are trying to recover this week, too, from the Cortaca experience. Practices have not been in full pads, with contact limited.
“This week we just have to recover and kind of take it easy and make sure we get our energy back,” said MacNeill. “It was a really emotional week and an emotional game. The seniors last game, Cortaca, the win, the celebration... I can only imaging the energy that was exhausted there. And the physicality of the game itself. You just have to make sure the kids are allowed to recover. You don’t want to wear them down.”
Leading rusher Justin Autera, leading receiver Anthony Giuliano and starting junior cornerback D.J. Romano were among the recovering Red Dragons who missed some practice time to start the week. Getting defensive end Matt Kaufmann back from injury should help bolster the defense.
Autera rushed for a career high 232 yards on 37 carries in the win over Ithaca, and has 1,232 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season. Giuliano has 39 receptions for 632 yards to lead the receivers at the disposal of quarterback Dan Pitcher, who had thrown for 1,351 yards and 13 TDs.
Being tri-champions in the New Jersey Athletic Conference — as Cortland (20th), Montclair State (21st) and Rowan (22nd) were all ranked in this week’s AFCA Division III national poll – should have the Red Dragons ready, too.
“The strength of our conference has prepared us well for this game,” says MacNeill.
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