November 20, 2008

Large Senior Class Built Football Foundation

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Every year college football programs around the nation struggle to fill the void that is created when its senior class graduates. This is the norm, not the exception, as Cornell can attest.
With 33 seniors on the 2008 roster, Cornell will be hard pressed to develop a class of players as dedicated, intense and knowledgeable about the game of football as this year’s batch of seniors.
This group comprises the second largest graduating class in the Ivy League — by a slim margin, Yale’s class of 35 is the largest graduating group.
Compared to this year, Cornell only lost 15 players to graduation in 2007. However, this year’s senior class is also distinguished for being the first recruitment class of head coach Jim Knowles ’87.
[img_assist|nid=33766|title=Time flies|desc=One of 33 seniors, wide receiver and co-captain Tommy Bleymaier carries the ball at Schoellkopf Field.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“It was a class that came in here when the program was not competitive,” Knowles said. “I think they will be the base of the pyramid. While they have not accomplished all of their goals, they have proven that they can beat anybody. They beat all the teams in the Ivy League, and they’ve established a great presence at Schoellkopf. The base for a successful period has to start somewhere, and it started with this class.”
Obviously, there were a number of standout players amongst this senior class who had their names called numerous times on Saturday afternoons. With the loss of Nathan Ford and Tim Bax, for example, the Red will have to develop a new quarterback and a new hard-hitting safety. Both have been mainstays on their respective sides of the ball for Cornell throughout the years, but it is also the lesser-publicized contributions of their classmates that have successfully changed the tone of the program.
“Hopefully, we laid a foundation,” said senior wide receiver and co-captain Tommy Bleymaier. “When I came here, a 5-5 season was above expectations and we’re leaving here four years later and a 5-5 season is below expectations. However you look at wins and losses, the bottom line is that we changed the attitude around here. People are expecting better things and I think that’s all you can ask. Hopefully, Coach Knowles’ first couple of years and our class especially is known as one that kind of turned around the attitude of Cornell football.”
Although Bleymaier may occasionally be overlooked in a stable of solid wide receivers, he has played in all but one game during his four years at Cornell. The 5-9, 170 pound wideout earned a spot on the squad as a walk on prior to his freshman season. Bleymaier comes from a rich football pedigree, as his father is in his 27th year as the Athletic Director at Boise State.
“I’ve been around that program a lot, and I wanted to see something new,” Bleymaier said. “My brother [Joe] had come out east and done kind of the same thing. He walked on at Delaware [as a wide receiver]. I considered Boise State, but I just thought I had a more realistic chance to play here and I’m happy with the choice.”
Similar to Bleymaier, senior punter Michael Bolling walked on to the team during his freshman campaign and started as a sophomore. Although he lost his starting job the following season and tore his ACL last year, Bolling returned in 2008 and remained with the program he had grown to love.
“I just wanted to be with this great group of guys,” said Bolling, who returned for a fifth year after missing all of last season. “There are so many seniors, and I wanted to be a part of it again. I think I only had five plays this year, but it’s definitely been worth it spending another year with the team. I never really expected to play. I’ve just been waiting for my opportunity and it kind of came and I did the job.”
A larger than average punter at 6-1, 264 pounds, Bolling filled in admirably at midseason for a struggling Nick Maxwell, the Red’s senior starting punter. Bolling contributed five punts for an average of 37.2 yards per punt.
Senior safety Shane Connolly is another reason this year’s senior class shares such a strong bond. After being sidelined for all of his sophomore season with a cartilage tear in his knee, Connolly could easily have hung up the cleats rather than rehabbing to get back on the field.
Connolly was originally a highly touted recruit at the quarterback position and was in heated competition with Ford during the spring prior to their sophomore season. Unfortunately, Connolly’s injury shattered any chance of getting on the field in 2006. Since then, he has rehabbed and made an impact on special teams and defense for the Red this season. Connolly’s dedication and contribution to this team is what defines this senior class.
“We’ve gone through a lot as a team — the ups and downs,” Connolly said. “My recruiting visit, we had 19 out of 21 commit and that weekend there was two feet of snow and it was negative 20 degrees out, so I think that had something to do with it. I think that weekend really showed what this class is all about.”
Although contributions by those whose names do not frequently appear in game recaps may go unnoticed by the majority at Schoellkopf Field, they are the reason why this senior class has retained 33 of its original 40 recruited players.
“It just shows great resolve and character from this class,” Knowles said. “They’ve done everything that the coaches have asked them to do. I’m disappointed we couldn’t get them more wins, but I think they established a permanent mark in the ultimate success of the program. When we do win the Ivy League championship, I expect that they’ll all be here in the sideline celebrating with us.”