It has not been an easy journey. Cornell sprint football has seen a 2016 season marred by tough opponents, injuries and a heartbreaking loss. But with a couple games left on the calendar, the Red is set on turning this final stretch of the season around.
One thing is clear with this group. No matter whom they lose to or whom they defeat, this team is resilient. Even when facing an Army (5-1) or Navy (5-1), Cornell (2-3) takes the same approach.
“We never quit,” said senior quarterback Rob Pannullo. “No matter the game or situation, we always fight hard — a true testament to the guys we have fighting on our side of the field.”
Junior running back Evan Ball agreed with his quarterback, saying that even in games that have not gone the Red’s way, the team has remained consistent in its effort.
“We have battled in tough games where we have fallen behind early, but never stopped fighting until the last whistle,” Ball said. “Additionally … due to various injuries sustained, people have had to step up into roles and have performed well.”
Injuries have hit the Red hard. In week one against Navy, senior running back Kevin Nathanson suffered an injury and has only recently returned. Nathanson totaled almost 800 all-purpose yards in 2015.
Cornell’s bye week leading up to the squad’s final three games was key in overcoming some lingering injuries. But facing Post after the bye week, Cornell suffered an unprecedented amount of injuries, including two high ankle sprains, two radial fractures in the wrist, a broken finger and a MCL injury. Six players went down in that game, a waterlogged 27-13 Cornell victory.
“We suffered some injuries [against Army] that I’ve never seen as a coach happen in one game, and I’ve been coaching for 45 years,” said co-head coach Bart Guccia. “And it wasn’t due to the field; the field was in fine condition.”
Despite the glut of injuries and rainy conditions, the Red was able to notch its second win of the season. Coming off this victory, Cornell is looking forward to this second half in a different light, according to Ball.
“We are looking at the second half of the season as a new season,” Ball said. “The first half didn’t go exactly as we would have liked, but we are putting that behind us.”
But as Ball and the rest of the Red have seen this season, the wins do not come automatically.
“Our biggest challenge is keeping everyone healthy,” he added. “Our goals are to go [undefeated] from here on out and specifically beat the other Ivy League foe in the league, UPenn.”
Penn (5-0) currently leads the Collegiate Sprint Football League and has defeated Navy and defending champion Army.
“Right now we have one win down and a tough game ahead of us, but a [3-0 end to the season] is what we are trying to achieve,” Guccia said.
As the season’s end rapidly approaches, Cornell will need to clean up the mistakes which have put the team down early in games at times. This squad knows exactly what to do out on the field and is a smart team, with “one of the highest GPAs of all the athletic teams,” according to Guccia. Yet in spite of this, the Red has struggled in executing its plans.
“On offense, we’ve been just one block or one read away from scoring touchdowns and on defense we’ve been in the right position a lot of times but haven’t been able to make a play on the ball,” Pannullo said.
Ball added that Cornell has faltered in its execution.
“We practice heavily during the week, preparing specifically for how to attack each team,” he said. “We have the talent on our team to go out and compete with any team in the league. It is just a matter of how well we execute what we’ve prepared.”
Ball added that the offense has struggled to convert on third downs, which is key in finding a rhythm but also is critical in keeping the Red defense off the field.
Amidst the tough defeats to Navy and Army and a heartbreaking fourth quarter loss to Chestnut Hill, Cornell has been able to rebound and play quality football.
“We played very well and the group rebounded,” Guccia said.
But after the redeeming win against Mansfield came a tough road loss to Chestnut Hill, 24-29. The Red came back from a 16-point deficit only to lose in the final moments of the game.
“Grabbing the lead within the last two minutes was a great feeling only to have it taken away by a Chestnut Hill score in the last minute of the game,” Ball said. “That was an emotionally draining game for everyone.”
Losing to Chestnut Hill was a tough blow for Cornell — a big setback in the season. According to Ball, the Red would have much preferred going to West Point with an extra win under its belt in what was an uphill battle. Cornell fell to Army, 43-12, and was 1-3 heading into the bye injured but hungry to fight back.
Cornell took on last place Post coming off the bye week. The Red took care of business and defeated the Eagles, 27-13, for its first home win of the season.
“We played in adverse conditions but played quite well,” Guccia said. “We made some mistakes but they came back [from the bye] and won.”
Uncertainty lies ahead for sprint football in these final two games. Injuries scatter the lineup and roles need to be filled. A dominant Penn squad stands in the way of Cornell’s hopes to end the second half undefeated. It has not been a successful 2016 for the most part, but the Red has the opportunity to turn the season around with a couple wins and finish with a winning record.
Cornell travels to Philadelphia to take on Penn this weekend and will square off against Franklin Pierce on Nov. 4.