After finishing 4-3 last season with their best record since 2012, Cornell sprint football aspires to break through the four-win ceiling and get to the next level despite perennially tough opponents standing in their path.
Since that season in fall of 2012, the Red has lost to Army, Navy and Penn collectively in every season. This trio has been the squad’s Achilles heel.
“The teams year in and year out that we gage ourselves are … Navy, Army and Penn,” said head coach Bart Guccia. “Those are the three that we [need to play] up for. The rest of the league we feel that we match up very well. We have been able to be very successful against those other teams … but the competition level is getting better.”
Against the four other teams in the league, Cornell won their 2015 matchups by margins of 21 or greater. The Red’s lowest point total was 33 against Mansfield.
Army and Navy are a step above the rest, according to Guccia.
“Army and Navy are the two premier teams that have been in the league, and have won it the last 10 years,” Guccia said. “Being against the two best teams that have dominated the league, we have got our work cut out for us.”
Cornell will open the season against Navy on Schoellkopf. Players like senior defensive back Ryan Jackson agree that the Midshipmen pose a substantial threat.
“I believe our biggest challenge will be our first game of the year against Navy; they’re perennially one of the top teams in the league,” Jackson said. “We’ve typically played them mid-season once we had a few games under our belt which has allowed us to fine tune any deficiencies in our offense or defense. Now, however, we don’t have that time; we have to come out and be at our absolute best from the start.”
The academies, Army and Navy, generally have a foot up on the rest of the league for a number of reasons.
“At the academies, the sizes of the athletes that they are getting are perfect for sprint football,” Guccia said. “Anyone that is in the academy has to play a sport or play an intramural, so they will be able to have 200 athletes try out for a team. They are picking from a large pool and they get good athletes anyway.”
The Red may not have the skill of an Army or Navy, but if they play their strategy the right way and hang in the contest, it may be possible to pull out a win.
“Our biggest thing is we have to go out and execute,” Guccia said. “We can’t put ourselves in the hole either offensively or defensively. We don’t have to play a perfect game but we have to protect the ball on offense and not let them get easy scoring opportunities”
On offense, Cornell has nine of 11 players returning who started most of last year. And on defense, there are 8 starters from last year returning to the squad. The experience and maintained chemistry of the Red could prove to be valuable.
“This year we have many returning starters and players,” said senior running back Kevin Nathanson. “Many players are familiar with our offense so hopefully we can cut on down on the mental mistakes and come into the season sharp and ready to go. The returning players can also teach the younger guys to make their transition to the team easier.”
Nathanson’s fellow veteran Jackson shared similar thoughts.
“Experience is perhaps our greatest strength,” Jackson said. “The team as a whole has a great feel for the game and shows the intangible instincts necessary for the season to be successful.”
Cornell’s biggest trial for the season, aside from a tough lineup of opponents, will be keeping a full roster.
“Our biggest challenge … this year is going to be staying healthy,” Nathanson said. “We have a lot of great guys, just need to make sure we all stay healthy throughout the season.
Guccia agrees that his squad could see success barring any major setbacks.
“If we can avoid catastrophes, I think we can stay in a game [with Navy],” Guccia said.
If the team naturally progresses over the season, Cornell may be able to break that four-win ceiling that has been elusive for them in recent history. The Red has not acquired five wins since 2010, when the group beat Army at West Point.
“The goal that the team has always had is to improve everyday at practice individually, so that the whole team improves,” Guccia said. “If we do lose [against Navy], it is not the end of the world. We just need to go out the next week, win that game, and keep improving as the year goes on.”
For the season opener, Cornell will face off against the Navy Midshipmen on September 17 at 1 PM on Schoellkopf Field.