By Matt Popchock
In the immortal words of John Facenda, the autumn wind, in 2010, was a Raider.
Cornell certainly left an indelible mark on the previous season of WPIAL football, and it didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to leave that mark. Well, sort of.
All it had to do was win, and it did. Then it won again. And again. And again. Before we knew it, we were asking ourselves, who was this team in blue and gold, and what did it do with Cornell?
Gone was the team that had won only seven games over the course of the previous five seasons. Gone was a playoff drought that had lasted since 2001, thanks to an eyebrow-raising 6-0 overall start and 4-2 finish within the Big 7 Conference.
Also gone, unfortunately, is Dan Knause, the head coach who helped turn the Raiders from doormat to dark horse. Surprisingly, he stepped down earlier this summer, and former Aliquippa assistant Ed Dawson took over.
What can Dawson’s team possibly do for a suitable encore coming off one of the most exciting–and important–seasons in program history? Why, make the playoffs for a second year in a row, of course…which Cornell has never done. Dawson has a lot to work with this year, so that window of opportunity is still very much open.
Shawn Owens was not the full-time quarterback as a junior, but he might as well have been; he took over when Jake Almasy suffered a season-ending collar bone injury during Cornell’s opener, and he turned out to be one of the most fleet-footed QB’s in Class A. Owens threw for 666 yards and 11 TD’s against six INT’s last season, completing 45.5% of his passes, and racked up 510 rushing yards and six more TD’s on the ground, averaging nearly five yards a carry.
This is important, because Osyrus Fisher, the Raiders’ top rusher in 2010, has graduated, and thus, the offense has lost some of its explosiveness. So it stands to reason senior tailback Derrick Jackson, who ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns in limited action last year, needs to step into a leadership role with serviceable running backs Ron Borne and Mark Whitling also gone, even if Owens is the focal point of the offense.
It also stands to reason that B.J. Lipke, more than ever before, will take center stage. In the winter he starts for the Lincoln Park basketball team, but because that school does not play football (and because he lives in the Cornell School District), he’ll be suiting up for the Raiders on Fridays again. The senior receiver/linebacker looks like a prime all-conference candidate after catching 11 passes for six TD’s and 255 yards in limited action in 2010, while contributing 31 tackles (23 solo) and leading Cornell with nine sacks.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that those five games last year were enough for him to draw interest from Pitt, Penn State, and West Virginia, among several other Division I schools. Additionally, the graduation of leading wide out Malik King could mean the playbook opens up for senior tight end Cory Mackey, who caught six touchdown passes last season and will be a presence on that offensive line.
Cornell cobbled together 25.2 points per game last year. In the big picture, that was pedestrian by Class A standards, but when you consider the school now only has 24 players on its current preseason roster, it’s actually kind of impressive.
Exactly two-thirds of that roster (16) are seniors, so, once again, the cupboard is not bare on this team when it comes to leadership. The defense as a whole, without really blowing anyone’s skirt up numbers-wise last year, still usually played well enough for the team to be in position to win; Cornell’s 19.2 points allowed per game in 2010 bear that out. In order for Cornell not to see that progress come undone, Lipke needs help.
He’ll have a lot of it on the defensive line, especially coming from monstrous senior Paul Branagan, and Mackey, who was one of their top tacklers, posting 61 total (33 solo) and three sacks. The Raiders need to tackle well too, because the graduation of Borne and King, both of whom made All-Big 7 and were capable DB’s, the pass defense becomes a little more suspect. Another returning lineman, Mason Fisher, had six pass deflections as a junior, placing even more importance on how well those front seven execute.
Normally Rochester would be the clear-cut favorite in the Big 7, but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year, given some of the fine athletes it has graduated, and given the Division I talent Ron Butschle has cultivated at Sto-Rox.
In any event, the Rams and Vikings will most likely duke it out for conference supremacy (for those who are curious, those teams meet at McKees Rocks in Week 4). That leaves teams like Western Beaver and Shenango, both of which return seasoned and capable offenses, and Cornell to jockey for those final two playoff spots.
There’s going to be pressure on this team to demonstrate that 2010 wasn’t a one-shot deal, and that things won’t go back to normal–normal by its own standards, anyway. The name of the man wearing the whistle and toting the clipboard may have changed, but Cornell’s 2011 team still has enough experience to make that statement.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)