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Cortaca Jug ready for the big stage

The venerable Cortaca Jugs, three of them now as the rivalry between Ithaca and Cortland moves into its seventh decade.
Ithaca athletics file photo

By Adam Turer

Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill has been involved in nearly half of the 60 Cortaca Jug games. 

He’s never been a part of one quite like the 61st edition of the rivalry between Ithaca and Cortland. 

MacNeill, who spent two years coaching under Jim Butterfield at Ithaca between his four years playing for the Red Dragons and 23 years as head coach at his alma mater, has led his team through many tunnels in his career. But the former captain and longtime head coach has never shepherded his team onto a National Football League field before. 

He’ll have that opportunity on Saturday, when 8-1 Cortland faces 7-2 Ithaca at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

“A dragon is always better when shaken. The anticipation of 42,500 fans, not many people on the team have had that opportunity,” said MacNeill. “You’ve got to process that, the stage, the venue. We’re trying to make it a very memorable experience. Friday is going to be a long day. You want to make sure you enjoy that day. There’s a lot of things at stake.”

For Cortland, any hope at earning a Pool C playoff berth is on the line. The Bombers have the chance to spoil their rival’s season. If anyone thinks the luster of this game has been diminished after both teams stumbled following 7-0 starts, they have not been around Cortaca week before. 

“It’s not that different. Everything ramps up in a regular Cortaca week. The energy and excitement around the week is always different,” said Bombers coach Dan Swanstrom. “This game has become the front door for what everyone knows about Ithaca College.”

The game is going to shatter the record for largest crowd at a Division III football game. MacNeill’s estimation has already been surpassed — an estimated 45,000 tickets have been sold as of Wednesday. The record, until Saturday's game is complete, is 37,355 at the 2017 Johnnie-Tommie game held at Target Field in Minneapolis.

“The fact that we’re going to pull that off is pretty special,” said Swanstrom. “It goes to a deeper metaphor for the school, the alumni base, and the love for Ithaca and Ithaca football. People love Ithaca College and they love to support it.”

The alumni bases from both schools are excited to celebrate the historic rivalry near New York City. They are also excited for a larger part of the nation to recognize how intense the rivalry is year in and year out. 

“The best way that I can describe it is for me, having had the chance to cover rivalries like Yankees-Red Sox and Army-Navy, the passion is on par with that,” said ESPN journalist Kevin Connors, a 1997 Ithaca grad. “The scope of the rivalry obviously is not, but the passion is on par with that. 

“We live in a Division I world. It’s especially true at ESPN where there are so many sports, so many teams, how can people keep track of 500 teams. I tell people about Ithaca-Cortland and there’s almost a sarcastic, ‘Oh, big deal.’ Then to follow it up with playing in an NFL stadium, they may get 50,000 people. In the context of most other programs that don’t have 100,000-seat stadiums, that’s a big deal. To be at the Division III level and getting that many fans is a real ‘wow’ moment.”

The coaches and players have to find a way to balance the annual intensity of the rivalry with the unprecedented enormity of the record-breaking game with the weekly focus on preparing to win this week’s game. 

“You’ve got to remain to the truth of the matter, and that’s the team that performs best on the field on Saturday is going to win the football game,” said MacNeill.

This game has been circled on calendars for more than a year, especially with so many fans and alumni more invested than ever. But for the current parties involved, it’s just the game on the Week 11 schedule in 2019. 

“I really really tried to wait until Sunday. That was my strategy with everything that was going around,” said Swanstrom. “I really tried to take everything week by week. We’re here now.”

Every year, the seniors on both teams have to temper the excitement that permeates campus during Cortaca week. This year is no different, yet still slightly different. The seniors who have been there before really haven’t been here before. 

“We tell them a lot with the big energy that this game is going to bring to just have fun with it,” said Bombers captain Nick Garone. “Don’t get nervous, let loose, play like you’re a little kid in the backyard. It’s going to be wild. We’re not even going to be able to hear ourselves talk.”

“Everyone is so involved in Cortaca, it’s hard to take out the hype out of it. The energy, how loud it’s going to be is going to be different. Cortaca has been loud before,” said Red Dragons captain Zach Tripodi. “Especially freshmen and sophomores, everyone has to take that moment and take it in and embrace the fact that it’s the Giants and Jets stadium and we’re playing in front of a big crowd. 

“I don’t think it’s going to sink in until we step foot on the field on Saturday. The stage will definitely be different. At the end of the day, it’s just any other week for us.”

The New York City chapter of the National Football Foundation has played an integral role in making this event happen. The hype has continued to grow each week, fueled even more by the teams’ impressive starts to the 2019 season. While neither were able to claim a conference championship, the buzz surrounding Cortaca is as noisy as ever. The noise becomes palpable in the moments leading up to kickoff on Saturday. 

“When I was a freshman playing at Cortland, I could barely hear anything. The noise level is so loud. You’ve got to trust your teammates and have confidence in them and have confidence in yourself,” said Garone. “You have to think back to August and early September and all the training in the winter, that’s why you do it, for moments like this.” 

The players realize that they are playing for something bigger than themselves. This may be the most important Cortaca Jug of all time, but only until Week 11 of 2020. The players who have participated in this rivalry have a true appreciation for how unique and special it is.

“It’s the history behind it,” said Tripodi. “It’s not really about the present Cortaca, it’s about the alums and everyone who is so passionate about it. It’s not about you, it’s about everyone before you.”

Even MacNeill has heard from former teammates who he hasn’t spoken to in decades. 

“That’s part of the fun of it, too. The event has brought attention back to bringing them into the fold,” said MacNeill. “Our players have friends reaching out, letting them know that they’ll be there or wish they could be there.” 

Of the many rivalries in Division III, not many have the opportunity or support to take a big risk at hosting an event on a very un-D-III like scale. The support of the alumni base has vindicated the administrators and supporters who decided that playing Cortaca at MetLife was a worthy endeavor. 

“To have a huge rivalry game, two really good teams playing in an NFL stadium, I think it’s going to be the best Cortaca Jug game yet,” said Connors. “I thought as good as this rivalry is, why not swing for the fences here. To see this come to fruition now where it is, is amazing. It’s validation of that think-big philosophy that doesn’t always happen at a Division III school. Anything I’m a part of this weekend [on ESPN] will have an Ithaca-Cortland highlight in it.”

In the preseason, the coaches and team captains had the opportunity to tour the locker room and walk through the tunnel at MetLife. They were able to close their eyes for a few seconds and imagine playing in front of the biggest crowd of their lives, on the same field where the pros play each Sunday. 

“We want them to enjoy this opportunity and this process. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Swanstrom. “It’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be exciting. We’re happy to be a part of it.”

Until that first moment when the pads collide, most of the players will be feeling butterflies unlike any they have felt before. 

“No question: That is part of the challenge of this event. Hype is good, everybody wants hype. Crowds are good. But the tenets of the game, those that win the game, are those that play the game and honor the game,” said MacNeill. “You’ve got to mitigate risk and volatility. But man, ain’t that great? Isn’t that the ride that you want to be on? We want to make sure that we certainly enjoy the moment, but balance it with the truth of the game.

“I can’t wait to see the awe, too. I’m excited for the kids to experience it and process it correctly.”

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.


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