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The Little (BIG) Game That Could

Written by Bryan Roth '07

Photo: Tim McKinney

Everyone at Ithaca knows about the rivalry.

They’ve heard the comparisons to Yankees–Red Sox, North Carolina–Duke, and Colts–Patriots. Then again, could it be any less than what Sports Illustrated called the “Greatest Little Game in the Nation”?

Less than 25 miles separate the two schools that compete annually for the Cortaca Jug, the most sought-after sports trophy at Ithaca College (aside from a national championship, of course). Every fall, Ithaca College and State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland take to the football field in what is easily the most anticipated sporting event of the calendar year for any Bomber. For almost 50 years, the two Division III schools have competed for the Cortaca Jug, a trophy small in stature but big in meaning.

“This is an opportunity for the student body, players, Ithaca community, coaches, everyone to be united in an atmosphere that’s electric,” says Ithaca’s football head coach Mike Welch ’72. “It’s a week of anticipation for a Saturday afternoon of fun. It’s like a little bowl game.”

In the inaugural Cortaca Jug game, Cortland took home the newly recognized trophy in a 13–7 win, but Ithaca has dominated the contest from that point on, going 31–17 through last year’s matchup.

Over the years the game has maintained its popularity at the schools, drawing between 8,000 and 13,000 fans. Compared to the Bombers’ weekly games, Cortaca is the Super Bowl of the season for the teams and fans. Waves upon waves of students, faculty, staff, and alumni pour through the gates -- a nonstop stream of bodies that fills every inch of the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex or Butterfield Stadium, home of the Bombers.

“It’s the long-standing tradition,” says former offensive lineman Justin Brunell ’07. “Every alum around the world is zoned into that 60 minutes of football. Alumni ranging from those just graduated to 70-year-old men let us know how important the game is and was to them, and how it’s such a privilege to get a chance to participate in the rivalry.”

Scheduled as the last game of the regular season for both teams, it’s easy to see why it’s held in such high regard. More often than not, there’s plenty on the line: a good record, a trip to the Empire 8 or Division III playoffs, and pride for both players and students.

“Every college has its rival,” explains Brunell. “It’s very natural to feed into the excitement that the athletes are feeling if you are a fan, and vice versa. Once you have experienced the game firsthand, it’s easy to see how everyone gets so wrapped up in it.”

Brunell’s teammate and one of this year’s football team captains, Ryan Terlecki ’08 thinks the excitement hits a much more basic core: “You absolutely hate to lose the Cortaca Jug,” he says.

After taking part in two Cortaca Jug games, tight end Brian Weverbergh ’09 still says it’s bigger and more intense than anything he’s experienced, including winning a state championship in Connecticut. For incoming freshmen, he says, it’s easy to get involved. “Be like a bull and learn to hate the color red and everything about it; then the rivalry will all make sense,” Weverbergh said.

Like any school tradition surrounding sporting events, the Cortaca rivalry has its fair share of tailgating and postgame parties that go along with it. But that isn’t all there is to the weekend surrounding Cortaca. Alumni from all over the country from both schools will often return to meet up with friends and faculty to celebrate Ithaca’s big-time sporting event.

No matter how you choose to celebrate, the important thing is just to enjoy the game. Says Weverbergh, “A minute after you step into the stadium you will know what all the fuss is about.”

Go long, Ithaca.



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