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November 21, 2008

 

Cortland title quest begins

Plymouth State provides first obstacle

Cortland

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland running back Andrew Giuliano is 55 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time single season rushing leader heading into Saturday’s first round NCAA playoff game against Plymouth State.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

Though an unbeaten regular season eluded the grasp of SUNY Cortland last weekend, the Red Dragons have loftier football ambitions at the moment.
The NCAA Division III playoffs are the next challenge on the Red Dragons’ agenda, starting Saturday at noon when Plymouth State arrives from New Hampshire for a first round contest.
The trick for the Red Dragons is to put the immediate past behind them — last Saturday’s 35-13 loss to Ithaca College that prevented a perfect 10-0 season and kept the coveted Cortaca Jug in the hands of their fierce rivals.
The fact a victory might set up rematch with the Bombers will certainly provide an added incentive when the Red Dragons (9-1) take on the New England Football Conference champion Panthers (10-1) at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex. The winner will have a second round date with the survivor of the first round contest sending Curry (9-1) to Ithaca (9-1) Saturday, another noon kickoff at Butterfield Stadium.
“Everyone saw the brackets and said, ‘Ah, it’s going to be Cortland and Ithaca II.’ Bit I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not sure that Curry’s not a pretty good team,” said Cortland coach Dan MacNeill. “I’m not worried about any of that right now. I just want to get to the next round, and that means trying to stop the No. 3 ranked attack from running the football.”
The ability to run the football certainly makes Plymouth State — ranked third nationally among all Division III teams while averaging 298.8 yards per game — too dangerous of an opponent to get caught looking ahead.
The Panthers bring a nine-game win streak into the game, including last Saturday’s 46-16 victory over Maine Maritime in the NEFC championship game. They have not tasted defeat since a 24-7 loss at Mount Ida back on Sept. 13.
“That was kind of a rude awakening for us. We knew after that we couldn’t just roll the ball out there and play,” said sixth year Plymouth State head coach Paul Castonia of that lone setback. “You never want a loss, but it was a blessing in disguise and got us to where we are today.”
The impressive work of running back Jeff Mack is another reason the Panthers are where they are today, having rushed for 1,679 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“It’s no secret we are going to run the ball and everything we do goes through him,” said Coach Castonia of the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Mack, a two-time Boston Globe Golden Helmet Award winner. “He’s a tough runner who can make someone miss, but it’s nothing fancy. We just run him straight ahead and after a while the yards just start to pile up.”
MACK WILL TEST a Red Dragon defense that has allowed just 91 yards per game. No running back has broken the 100-yard barrier against the Red Dragons.
Plymouth State quarterback John DeMarco is a 6-2, 224-pound handful who has rushed for 668 yards and a dozen touchdowns.
While senior linebacker Jim Smith (99 tackles) and sophomore linebacker Brian Haas (82 tackles) are the leaders of the Cortland defense, their job is made easier when squat defensive tackles Rich Rolo (5-10, 265) and Lou Crispo (6-1, 260) control the line of scrimmage with the help of senior Ben Nagle and junior team sack leader Bryan Wiley at defensive ends.
But as Coach MacNeill points out, defending this offense is more about each individual handling his job more than aggressive pursuit that is a Red Dragon trademark.
The Red Dragon secondary is banged up a bit, too, safety Chris Hanlon out for at least two weeks after hurting his knee against Ithaca. Sophomore James Lenhart, who had an interception against Ithaca, will get his first start at safety.
“This is an ideal opponent because they don’t put a lot of stress on your secondary,” said MacNeill, the Panthers averaging about four passes per game.
Still, this is an offense scheme Cortland has not seen previously this season, with only a week of preparation.
“How do you simulate it?” wondered Coach MacNeill of preparing for the Panthers. “Well, you can’t simulate it, but you can try to catch up to it.”
In other words, as the game goes along he hopes the Red Dragons can learn on the fly how to deal unique problems Mack and Company provide.
CORTLAND CAN run the ball, too — with Andrew Giuliano enjoying a huge senior season at tailback. While Mack ranks eighth in rushing nationally, Giuliano is not far behind with a 132.3 yards per game average that is the 15th best in Division III.
The 21 touchdowns Giuliano has scored this season is a school record, and the 1,323 yards gained is the second best single season total in school history. Gareth Grayson, on hand last week at the Cortaca Jug Game as a member of the 1988 Red Dragon squad celebrated its 20th year anniversary of an unbeaten regular season, is the school record holder with 1,378 yards.
“They’ve got that big front line, they shove people around and they’ve got some good weapons,” worried Plymouth State’s Castonia, singling out Giuliano and 2,318 yard passer Ray Miles at quarterback. “We’re going to give it our best shot, but we’re going to have to elevate our game.”
Miles has thrown for 14 touchdowns this season. Senior Zacc Guargno, the wide-receiver out of Lansing, just became the 13th player in school history to have over 50 receptions in a season after grabbing nine balls against Ithaca.
This will be the sixth appearance in the NCAA tournament for Cortland, the first since losing at Hobart College in Geneva three seasons ago. Plymouth State has been in the NCAA four times previously, but not since 1995.
And this is where the Red Dragons expected to be this season.
“The snow is flying. You talk back in the summer about playing in November,” said MacNeill, snow having arrived to Central New Yorkthis week. “You really want to be playing when the snow is flying. November is for contenders, and we’re contenders.”