Preview: Cortland football begins 2017 season this weekend

THE MATCHUP: Cortland begins its 2017 season by hosting the Augustana College Vikings from Rock Island, Illinois in a non-league contest. The game is one of three non-league tests for the Red Dragons this fall along with road games at Framingham State (Sept. 9) and Ithaca (Nov. 11). Augustana is a member of the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW), while Cortland begins its third season as an affiliate member of the Empire 8.

THE SERIES: Cortland and Augustana are meeting for the first time. The Vikings are Cortland's first-ever opponent from the Central time zone, and only the second-ever from outside the Eastern time zone (Cortland played at Linfield College in Oregon in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Division III playoffs).

Cortland returns 10 starters from last year's squad that finished 5-6 overall (5-5 regular season) and 3-5 in the Empire 8. The Red Dragons won their final two regular-season games, including their seventh straight victory in the annual Cortaca Jug rivalry game versus Ithaca, and earned a berth into the ECAC Clayton Chapman Bowl postseason game. The Red Dragons lost that game, 30-27, to Kean University on a field goal as time expired.

Leading the offensive returners is senior quarterback and team captain Steven Ferreira, who played in three games last fall before suffering a season-ending injury. Ferreira earned All-East honors in 2015 after completing 225-of-339 passes (66.4 percent) for 3,127 yards and 29 touchdowns with only five interceptions in 11 games. Ferreira set school single-season records for passing yardage and completions, and his 29 TD passes were two shy of matching the school record. Brett Segala started last season fifth on Cortland's quarterback depth chart but eventually started the final three games. He threw for more than 300 yards in each of those contests and finished 88-of-136 (64.7 percent) with 11 touchdowns in four appearances.

Tailbacks Zach TripodiJohnnie Akins and Alex Wasserman combined to rush for 924 yards and 12 touchdowns on 217 carries last season. Tripodi averaged six yards per rush on 66 attempts. Wasserman has been moved to a wide receiver spot this fall. Senior wide receiver Jake Smith caught 51 passes for 840 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. However, he will miss the entire season due to an injury, but will still be a team captain.

Three starters return on the offensive line - center and team captain Dan Bach and tackles Travis Alvarez and Thomas Cornelius. Bach has started every game at center the past two seasons. Alvarez started all 11 games as a freshman last fall, while Cornelius was a starter in all 11 games last year in his first season of seeing varsity action.

Linebacker Mark DeLuise is the team's leading returning tackler with 72 stops (38 solo) in 11 games last season. He registered six tackles for loss, including two sacks. Cornerback Max Jean finished with 45 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups. Brandon Lewis makes the transition from free safety to strong safety this season. He made 43 tackles, 27 solo, in 11 appearances last year.

Linebacker and team captain Kyle Richard totaled 25 tackles a year ago, while defensive end Dylan Ferrari is the team's returning leader with 3.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. Other key returners on defense include defensive end Dan Appley (39 tackles, three sacks in 11 games) and free safety Isaac Hicks (30 tackles, two interceptions in 10 games).

William Holscher and Nick Mongelli are battling for kicking and punting duties after serving as backups last year. Holscher handled kickoff duties toward the end of last year and also averaged 49 yards per punt on three attempts in the ECAC Clayton Chapman Bowl. Mongelli made 3-of-4 PAT kicks in the ECAC bowl game. Wasserman averaged 23.6 yards per kickoff return last fall, including a 90-yard return for a TD versus Framingham, and Lewis averaged 4.4 yards per punt return on 19 attempts.

Head coach Dan MacNeill is in his 21st season with the Red Dragons. His overall record of 135-75 (.643) ranks him first at Cortland in career victories and winning percentage. He was the 2015 HERO Sports National Coach of the Year and the East Region Coach of the Year, and he and his assistants were chosen as the Empire 8 Coaching Staff of the Year. In addition, he's been the New Jersey Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in both 2008 and 2012, and also was a finalist for Liberty Mutual National Div. III Coach of the Year honors in 2008 after leading the Red Dragons to the league title and the NCAA quarterfinals.

MacNeill has guided Cortland to six NCAA playoff appearances (1997, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015) and eight ECAC bowl games (most recently in 2016). His 2008 squad was honored with the Lambert Meadowlands Trophy and the ECAC Div. III Team of the Year awards. MacNeill is a 1979 Cortland alumnus and played linebacker and defensive tackle from 1975-78. Previously an assistant coach at Division I-AA Villanova University for 13 years, MacNeill is Cortland's 11th head coach since the school's modern era of football began in 1924. He joined the Villanova staff in 1984, and he served as linebackers coach and was the team's defensive coordinator from 1988-96.

 Augustana returns 41 letterwinners, including 16 starters, from last year's squad that finished 3-7 overall and 2-6 in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin.

Junior quarterbacks Zachary Fuller and Luke Bleyer split playing time last fall, with Fuller looking to be the favorite to start the opener this season. Fuller passed for 1,520 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, with Bleyer throwing for 1,035 yards and four scores. The Vikings' offensive line features returning starters James Cousin and Andrew Anderson, along with defensive converts Nathan Magiera and Chaz Wiliams. Junior Ryan Pitra rushed for 433 yards and four touchdowns last season, while sophomore Ethan Jennings (15 receptions, 252 yards) is the team's top returning receiver.

Seven starters return on defense, headed by junior safety John Asquini (66 tackles, four interceptions). Seniors Keith King Jr. and Lukas Stoutenour return on the defensive line. King totaled 24 tackled, 3.5 for loss, and Stoutenour made 17 tackles last fall. Grant Burke (26 tackles, 9.5 for loss, four sacks) moves from linebacker to defensive line. Cassin Wolfe finished with 64 tackles, five for loss, at linebacker last season, and Travon Aldridge (35 tackles, five pass breakups) moves to linebacker after starting three years at cornerback.

Senior Jacob Stytz was a first team all-league kicker in 2016 after converting all 22 of his PAT kicks and 9-of-12 field goals, with a long of 46 yards. He enters the season with a streak of 62 consecutive successful PAT kicks. Stytz also averaged 41.7 yards per punt during his junior campaign.

Augustana has a storied football history. The Vikings won four straight Division III national titles from 1983-86 and finished as national runner-up in 1982 among their 15 NCAA appearances. Ken Anderson played at Augustana from 1967-70 and is the school's all-time passing leader (6,131 yards). He played for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1971-86 and was a four-time Pro Bowl selection.

Steve Bell enters his third season as Augustana's head coach in 2017. His Viking squads are a combined 7-13 (.350) over two years. Bell served as head coach at Monmouth College (Ill.) for 15 seasons from 2000-14 and compiled a record of 112-44 (.718) with four Midwest Conference championships. He was a five-time league coach of the year and led the Scots to four NCAA playoff appearances. Bell is a 1992 graduate of Bemidji State University, where he also served as an assistant coach from 1992-94.


* Four new assistant coaches join the Cortland coaching staff this fall. Jon Shelton comes aboard as the team's co-defensive coordinator and will coach the team's linebackers. Imarjaye Albury will coach the defensive linemen, Paul Amakihe is the team's tight ends coach, and Tre Williams will work with the outside linebackers. Amakihe and Williams also will oversee the team's strength and conditioning program.

Shelton will work as co-defensive coordinator with second-year assistant Mike Discenza. Shelton has more than 20 years experience in the coaching ranks, including stints at Division I schools Kansas and New Hampshire and Division II Southern Connecticut State.

* Of Cortland's six All-Empire 8 selections from last season, just one (wide receiver Jake Smith) is on the roster this fall. Current sophomore offensive lineman Travis Alvarezearned All-America honors from last season as a special teams performer after blocking five kicks.

* Cortland enters its third season in the Empire 8 this fall. The Red Dragons joined the league in 2015 after 15 seasons in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. Cortland finished in at least a tie for first in the NJAC six times (2005-08, 2010, 2012) and shared the Empire 8 crown last season. Four current Empire 8 members - Cortland, Brockport, Buffalo State and Morrisville State - at one point played in the NJAC and are affiliate members of the E8 in football only. The other league teams - Alfred, Hartwick, St. John Fisher and Utica - are full conference members. Ithaca left the Empire 8 after last year to become a full member of the Liberty League.

* Cortland Athletics is no longer a member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), which means Cortland football is no longer eligible to be chosen for an ECAC postseason bowl game, as it was last fall. However, Cortland's conference, the Empire 8, has partnered with the Liberty League to create a new postseason opportunity for its schools. The first-ever New York State Bowl will be held this November 18 and will feature the top team from each league that does not qualify for the NCAA playoffs. The Liberty League selection will host the game, with the Empire 8 representative scheduled to host the game in 2018.

* Saturday's game marks the second time in three years that a team from Augustana has traveled to Cortland. In 2015, the Vikings' women's lacrosse team played at Cortland in the third round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. The Red Dragons won that game en route to claiming their first national title.

* This will be Augustana's first-ever trip to New York for football. Augustana is 4-0 all-time versus New York schools, with all four games coming in NCAA Division III tournament play. The Vikings defeated Union, 21-17, in the 1983 national championship game (Kings Island, Ohio) and Ithaca, 20-7, in the 1985 NCAA finals (Phenix City, Alabama). They also beat Union, 23-6, in the 1984 national semifinals and St. Lawrence, 14-0, in the 1982 semifinals, both at home.

Here's a look at Cortland's schedule for the rest of the season:

Sept. 9 at Framingham St. (MA)..................... 12:00
Sept. 16 * HARTWICK..................................... 1:00
Sept. 30 * BROCKPORT................................... 2:00
Oct. 7 * at Buffalo St. ................................... 12:00
Oct. 14 * ALFRED........................................... 1:00
Oct. 21 * at Morrisville St. ............................... 1:00
Oct. 28 * at St. John Fisher............................... 2:00
Nov. 4 * UTICA................................................ 1:00
Nov. 11 at Ithaca.............................................. 12:00