By Joe Arruda
CORTLAND, NY – With just two minutes and 43 seconds remaining on the clock at SUNY Cortland’s stadium, the Springfield College football team lined up at the Red Dragons’ one-yard line. With one timeout left, the ball was handed off to fullback Pat Ladas, who plowed his way into the endzone for his third touchdown in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Tournament.
The defense needed a stop, and they got it. The Pride forced a Red Dragon punt to get the offense the ball at the Springfield 44-yard line.
“Honestly, I just never had a doubt in my mind taking that field, knowing that we needed to get a stop,” senior defensive back Kyle Niehr said. “When it was third and three, I had a lot of confidence in my team, we huddled up a little bit, told each other how we loved each other and let’s do this.”
But, on the Pride’s first play of what they hoped would be a game-winning drive, the ball hit the turf. On the triple-option, quarterback David Wells attempted a pitch but the ball ended up in the hands of Cortland’s Will Ruckert.
It was victory formation from there for Cortland, and heartbreak for Springfield as the clock read 26-21 in favor of the Red Dragons.
The team divided into small groups following the final whistle, reflecting on what was an incredible season that landed them in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in program history.
In those huddles, Ryan Deguire said he was “just telling the guys (he) loves them, how thankful (he is) to get to meet them and have that bond and lifelong friendships with them.
“Because it’s not about just playing the four years with them, it’s about lifelong relationships,” he said.
Saturday marked the eighth road game of the season for the Pride as they made the four-hour trip to Upstate New York, and the team knew not to take advantage of any bit of it.
“We were super excited honestly. And Coach (Cerasuolo) always preaches: it’s not a business trip when we’re coming up here. We’re coming up here to have fun, just like we always do, and we’re just playing football. It’s another week, it’s another game, have fun out there, play together as one whole group – 100 strong as one,” Niehr said. “Being able to have one more night in the hotel with all the guys just makes you think about all the past times that you’ve done it. It’s just surreal putting on the pads one last time and unfortunately came up short but I wouldn’t rather be with anyone else but this team.”
Deguire added, “I feel like this year was just about soaking it all in. We saw last year how this game and a lot of things can get taken away from you, and just coming back this year, soaking it all in.”
The Pride got on the board first after Ian Porter blocked a Cortland punt on the opening drive. With the ball on the Red Dragons’ 21-yard line, the Pride found the endzone after seven plays for Ladas’ first touchdown of the game. Cortland, however, responded with 19 unanswered points, taking a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter.
A two-score game with limited time is not ideal, to say the least, for Springfield College’s classic triple-option offense.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Pride completed an 11 play, 75 yard drive with Ladas’ second score of the game to bring the score within five. Cortland responded just three minutes later with a 51-yard bomb to a wide-open JJ Lapp who sprinted into the endzone untouched. Again, the Red Dragons led by 12.
Ladas, who had to step up once his counterpart at fullback went down early with an ankle injury, made the most of his opportunities. The senior led the game in rushing with 88 yards on 28 attempts leading to his three scores. Mark Montano led the way on defense with eight total tackles and a forced fumble, while Billy Carr, DJ Brown and Aiden Lewin had seven total tackles each. Carr also came up with an 11-yard sack.
Cortland, ranked No. 13 nationally entering the postseason with its 10-0 record, was held to just over 100 yards of offense in the fourth quarter as the Pride option hogged time of possession.
After losing three of its first four games on the road this season, the Pride bounced back to win all six of its conference games which earned them a spot in the tournament.
“We were able to overcome some early-season adversity but getting through that was what made us the team we ultimately were and again, we kind of make sure the things that we do carry over off the field as well,” Springfield head coach Mike Cerasuolo said. “(I’m) just extremely proud of Springfield College and our football program, specifically guys like Kyle and Ryan and the other 10 guys that came back for their fifth year.”
The Pride came to play, and they’ll come to play next year as well. Despite there being 33 seniors, 10 of whom used their fifth-year granted by the pandemic, Cerasuolo and the rest of the coaching staff’s goals were easily surpassed.
Photo courtesy of Springfield Athletics