BR-34 Cortland State has been the best surprise in D3 football this season. After a lackluster 5-5 campaign last season, few expected the Red Dragons to hold an undefeated record heading into a Week 6 match up with BR-20 Buffalo State. And while the Dragons ultimately lost to the Bengals in the same way my Seahawks got trumped by the NFL version of the Bengals yesterday afternoon (big second-half comeback), there’s no denying Cortland figures to be among the top teams competing for a deep playoff run by season’s end.
“We haven’t over exceeded expectations,” head coach Dan MacNeill said in a phone interview Friday. “Our expectation in a traditional sense is to win our conference. It’s our first year in the Empire 8 conference, but we came in expecting to win the end jack. There are high expectations to be had as a program, but when you’re doing well its kind of a surprise from the outside, especially compared to last year when we were 5-5.”
The Red Dragons pulled off some miracle wins early on, starting with the “Hail Mary” victory over Heidelberg in Week 1.
Then, back-to-back overtime victories against BR-27 Utica and BR-77 Hartwick in Weeks 4 and 5. Winning tight contests is necessary to build character, though MacNeil sees it more as a double-edged sword.
“A coach’s life is a paranoid life,” he said. “You feel good that your team has the character to battle right until the end. You look at some of the close games and you don’t think they should be as close as they were … there were turnovers and penalties. The last few games we played [against Utica and Hartwick] we only had three penalties against us and we won the turnover battle. The fact is the other teams certainly scored enough points to win, but our defense came up big.
“On the other hand, do we need to execute better? Sure, but from top to bottom the Empire 8 is equal to playing in the SEC. You gotta get up every week to play. The margin of victory is slim. It’s a very well coached league.”
Playing in such a tough division, while difficult, ultimately helps the team in the long run, according to MacNeil, who feels that playing at such a high level week in and week out fosters greatness.
“There no down time here,” he explained. “You gotta become a warrior in that respect. There’s always a concern that our kids will get to the playoffs and be gob smacked by a team that’s gone to more wars. The league we’re affiliated with prepares us well for that as long as we don’t beat each other up too bad first.”
Much of the Red Dragons’ success stems from quarterback Steven Ferreira’s elite play. To date, the 6-foot-1 junior QB has accumulated 1,464 passing yards and 14 touchdowns on 114-of-176 attempts.
“He’s really special,” MacNeil said. “Steven really is a cool guy under pressure. There’s not a whole lot of things that phase him. He knows where his receivers are and he’s kind of unflappable. He gives you a whole lot of confidence and that plays out really well on the field.”
Still, MacNeil is quick to point out his team is not a one-man show. Other players, such as running backs Donny Davis and Dylan Peebles — along with a solid defense — have stepped up in crucial moments to help win games.
“Our second string quarterback [Kyle Schneider] is the one that registered the win at Framingham,” MacNeil pointed out. “Steve’s the starting QB and he’s taken us through every other game this year. It’s frustrating for Schneider who had one shot [when Ferreira went down with an injury] and had a marvelous one, but hasn’t been able to get back on the field. We’re blessed to have good depth.”
As for keeping his team’s mental focus on target, MacNeil explained the importance of not looking too far into the future, or making lofty playoff predictions.
“As a coach I don’t even go there, we need to be 1-0 every week,” he said. “As soon as you start looking ahead you lose site of the moment. We are trying to stay focused, but we know this team can be something really special.
“We’re halfway through this storm that’s on our schedule. Some people worry about storms. Some people can’t wait for storms to pass. I say, let’s learn how to dance in the rain, baby! We’re all about the storms. Hopefully our kids stay centered that way, because we don’t have luxury of looking ahead.”
The Red Dragons next face Alfred at home on Saturday at 1 p.m.