October 30, 2008

Seniors' Legacy Is Unmatched

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Twenty-two men, three of whom will be earning their fourth varsity letter. Two thousand five hundred and thirty-three passing yards for captain Zak Dentes, the most in school history. Eleven conference wins. Three years without losing a game at Schoellkopf Field. Three consecutive winning seasons — the first consecutive seasons over .500 since 1988. One undefeated season, and one CSFL championship. These highlight reel takes were all accomplished by one senior class.
The 22 senior members of the sprint football team will take the field for the final time tomorrow against Mansfield, a team new to the CSFL. Mansfield isn’t the only new thing the current seniors will have seen come to Schoellkopf — the class also shepherded in Cornell’s recent winning tradition Cornell.
Prior to 2006, the Red’s last winning season came in 1992. Then, in the 2006 season, the Red went 6-0 en route to a National Championship, led by then first-year quarterback Zak Dentes.
“When I started with the team, I was working out with them in the off-season, and I first met [current senior] Brendon Stoller — who at that point was in the running for quarterback,” Dentes said. “I was just amazed at how friendly Stoller was, even though he knew I was trying out for quarterback. That’s when I knew it was about the team and not the individual.”
Since meeting Stoller — who is one of three four-year lettermen with captain Michael Brennan and d-lineman Jim Gonos — Dentes has been part of a team that has had three straight winning seasons for the first time in two decades. And despite it being about the team, Dentes has still managed to get his name atop the record books as Cornell’s all-time leading passer.
Eight hundred and forty-five of Dentes’ passing yards came in 2006, the same year captain John Parke transferred to Cornell and joined a defense that would allow only 36 points all season.
“The biggest thing [during my career] would be coming in 2006 and winning the title,” Parke said. “That changed our persona as a team. We went from being a second tier team to being in contention to win it every year. We used to never think we could beat Army and Navy, but since I’ve been here, losing to them is a big disappointment.”
The current senior class has put together an impressive 4-2 record against Army and Navy over the past three years, something that was unheard of in the CSFL prior to the Red’s breakout 2006 season.
“I’m just really happy of where the team is now, and I hope that we continue playing well against the Academies,” Dentes said, looking back on his entire career. “We beat Army three times, and not many sprint alumni can say that.”
Not many sprint alumni can also say that they haven’t lost at home.
“Something that is true since Dentes and I started is that we haven’t lost at home since I’ve been here,” Parke said.
“The younger guys coming in, starting with next year’s seniors, haven’t lost at home – that’s this class’ legacy,” said head coach Bart Guccia. “If we win on Friday, they’ve given their teammates’ eight-straight home wins. The seniors have really been the backbone of the team this year.”
One of the three four-letter winners who was on the team for the last home loss is captain Mike Brennan.
“He played hockey most of the time in high school, but I told him, ‘Hey, we need you for the football team,’” said Dentes, who attended Ithaca High School with Brennan. “He played football his senior year, and since then he’s just been remarkable, and now’s he’s got a chance at being the leading receiver in Cornell history.”
This year’s three captains, Dentes, Parke, and Brennan, as well as the rest of the class of 2008 got off to a rough start this season against Penn, losing 17-3. Since then, however, the seniors have led a turnaround, losing just once to Navy and getting in position to have a chance at the CSFL title.
“After getting off to a bad start in the Penn game, their leadership rose to the top, and they were able to keep the team focused and lead us to where we are now,” Guccia said.
“Of course, Zak Dentes has been phenomenal or the past three years,” Guccia said when asked about the current senior class. “As you know, he just set the record last week at Army, and he’s just been terrific. Mike Brennon, receiver, is the same way. Matt Malleo has had a great season too.
“Josh Friedman basically came out of the woodwork this year and has had a great season. Mitch Ottinger had the duel role of kicking and playing center after being a converted soccer player. Tim Gonos was another one of the guys that has contributed a lot. Those guys have probably been the core of our team this season.”
The team’s core certainly is made up of seniors, including guys that didn’t see much playing time last year. Friendman leads all receivers with 271 yards, while rookie-senior Ryan Smith has stepped up to lead the Red in rushing.
“Obviously, there’s not a captain at every position, but there’s a senior there that leads,” Parke said. “Every position has a senior that’s starting – a role model for everybody else to mimic. And to show everyone what they have to do throughout the year, and to carry forward into next year.”
In addition to the 22 players on the roster who are in their fourth year at Cornell, first-year head coach Bart Guccia is in his fourth year on the Red coaching staff. Guccia splits head coaching duties this year with Terry Cullen, who is in his 44th year at Cornell.
“I remember the first year I came in — I was coaching the defense,” Guccia said. “Jim Gonos — We actually found him during a kickoff drill. He was just a great hitter, and we had him change his position, and he’s been playing ever since. He’s one of the kids I remember coming in with. Gonos was one, [Brandon] Stoller, Brennan, and [David] Ortenberg. All were here my first year.”
While Guccia will be back next year, the 22 seniors will not. Instead, they’ll leave behind a winning legacy that leaves no room for losing.
“Obviously [this season] was a little disappointing because we thought that we were in position to win the league,” Parke said. “But at the same time, after the loss to Penn — to be able to bounce back from that and look at our successes of late is good. But really, the difference between being undefeated and where we are now is just a few plays. Going forward, the next guys realize what they need to do to become champs again.”
If Army is able to upset Navy this weekend, Cornell will get a piece of the championship. If not, the new guys better find out what it takes to become champs, because the seniors, including Zak Dentes, already have their rings, and won’t be gone for too long.
“I’ll definitely be back for the alumni games, playing against the younger guys,” Dentes said.