For a team which consistently teetered on the edge of victory last year but never quite got there, the Cornell sprint football could best be described in one word: “almost.”
Cornell “almost” defeated University of Pennsylvania, the reigning Collegiate Sprint Football League champion, landing just short in double overtime. Cornell almost defeated Franklin Pierce before a last-minute mishap on the 8-yard line thwarted the Red’s efforts.
“Last year we had the talent to win and played very well at times, but struggled with consistency and finishing games,” said junior tight-end Craig Hannon.
But with head coach Bob Gneo at the helm, being promoted after a stint as defensive backs coach, Cornell is eagerly looking to start anew and put a year of “almosts” behind them.
If all goes to plan, that resurgence begins this Friday, Sept. 22, when the Red squares off against Caldwell University (0-1) in its season-opener at Schoellkopf Field.
However, Cornell is not alone in hoping for a fresh beginning — this will be the first year Caldwell is fielding a sprint football team. Under the direction of head coach Daryle Weiss, Caldwell has managed to swiftly construct an 48-man roster from scratch, becoming the 10th member of the CSFL.
However, the newly-established program, has yet to iron out its rookie kinks, falling just last week to Penn (1-0) in a 69-6 blowout. In a game where Penn compiled a colossal slate of statistics, including an unprecedented 370 yards on the ground, Caldwell was simply unable to keep pace with the Quakers.
However, despite facing a freshly bruised opponent in its first game, Cornell’s attitude is anything but complacent.
“Our philosophy is one play at a time, one game at a time,” Gneo said. “Friday, as far as we’re concerned, is the biggest game of the season.”
Even though Caldwell’s inaugural game revealed a struggling team, Gneo did not discount the potential strength of Cornell’s upstart opponent. “They are a young team [with] 40 out of the 48 players [being] freshmen, so I suspect that they will play much better than last week,” he said.
“Caldwell is new to the league, but every team in this league is talented, and they’ll be hungry for their first victory,” Hannon said. “It’s crucial that we are locked in and ready to go come Friday night.”
In fact, Caldwell’s inexperience may in fact serve to its advantage, since Cornell’s ability to preemptively prepare for offensive and defensive schemes will be quite limited.
In addition, Friday’s matchup serves not only as the Red’s first game, but more broadly, a test of the changes it has experienced in the off-season.
Most notably, the graduation of 14 seniors — each of whom were active contributors — has given the team a far more youthful tenor. Nevertheless, the loss of seasoned talent has not dampered the expectations of an ambitious Gneo.
“We are incredibly optimistic, and we have a great starting 11 on both sides of the ball,” Gneo said.
Though a more inexperienced squad poses its own set of challenges, it also provides a prime opportunity for growth — an opportunity which will be embraced by a team looking to improve on last year’s underwhelming, two-win performance.
The team has also undergone a number of small adjustments, including revamped practices and a number of offense and defense tweaks. Gneo’s presence has also been pinpointed by the team in driving culture toward greater competitiveness and determination.
“In welcoming in [Gneo] this year, the program has undergone great change in a short period of time,” Hannon said. “[He is] bringing a renewed focus, toughness and energy that the program has lacked in the past.”
Cornell will kick off against Caldwell at Schoellkopf Field this Friday at 7 p.m. The matchup will also be broadcast live on The Ivy League Network. Following its season opener, the Red will travel to Pennsylvania on Saturday, Sept. 30 to face Mansfield.