It was in training camp, nearly four years ago, when the Ithaca High School football team learned to snap the ball, take a knee and run out the clock.
Thirty-two games, 128 quarters, nearly 2,000 minutes of football passed before the call for the “victory formation” came through the head set. But in the final two minutes of his high school football career, left tackle and three-year varsity player Jack Cesari was finally able to line up, right foot cocked back in a two-point stance, nobody to hit but the air around him.
The final weekend in November is a festival of champions, a weekend where eight teams of young men from all over the state get their bid for glory, a banner for the gym and bragging rights for the rest of their lives. In the months before, one by one, other teams fall by the wayside, their rosters thrown to the winds of obscurity, never to be remembered except by its participants for “the season that was.”
In Ithaca, it’s been that way for years.
It had been in eighth grade, a six-win campaign for the Little Red modified squad, when Cesari had last been part of a win. But up three with just seconds to go, there was still a chance this one, final shot could slip away.
That October 27 matchup at Norwich High School was not initially supposed to be the team’s last game. Typically playing a 10-game season, their final week went unapproved by Section 4, cutting the season to what seemed like a merciful end for the hapless 0-8 Little Red in Week 9. The game could have been a quiet coda to an otherwise unremarkable run for the team, notable only in the fact the team was the holder of the state’s longest losing streak; 32 games, dating to 2012.
But here Cesari was. Fourth down, deep in his own territory, just enough time left on the clock to blow their lead and go winless yet again. The play call was “punt safety,” where Cesari — the long snapper — would snap the ball like he’d done so many times before. The punter would catch it and proceed to dance around in the end zone, killing the clock and giving the Purple Tornado their two points; just one less than they needed.
“I’ve probably snapped the ball more than 1,000 times in my life,” Cesari said. “This one was the most difficult I’ve ever had.”
There hadn’t been much opportunity for glory in Cesari’s career, not before today. His first year on varsity as a sophomore offensive lineman was a quiet one, a whimpering limp to the finish line for a 0-9 squad filled with players who would all be gone once the cleats were packed away. The next season, a leaderless young team with just one senior starter took the field for the Little Red and nothing, it seemed, had changed. When the season ended that October, it was the same story; an 0-9 finish and rock bottom, with literally nowhere else to go but up.
There had been a lot of coaching changes, offensive schemes they weren’t prepared for. They had Ed Redmond a number of years before he left for a new life in Virginia, followed by coach Bill Bryant and a run-first offense that packed the box and the loss column with a team that had no more depth than a wading pool.
Then you had Kelly Gordon, the former all-Empire 8 player and the 2007 Ithaca High School alum who decided to air it out; to up the pace and spread the field. Execution was key and the pace was frantic, the game called from the sideline and the players on the field tuned into what they had to do. It seemed a good system, up to the point you realize football is a team sport above all else. The Little Red relied on a core nucleus of few, seven or so guys in the weight room every day, getting their backs broad enough to carry the whole squad.
“It’s not like bonding over coffee, you get to know somebody through their actions,” Cesari said. “I think it’s the ultimate team sport. You can play hockey and soccer man down, but on a football field, everybody is held accountable; it’s a machine where all the cogs had to fit together. This year, we were missing some of those gears.”
Coming into the season, morale was already low. After the starting running back tore his rotator cuff, things got worse. They lost by two scores to Vestal, had their heads handed to them in three consecutive blowouts afterward, including a 53-0 drubbing by Elmira. Horseheads, Binghamton, Rome Free Academy and Maine-Endwell all got the best of them. Then, with two games left, game No. 10 was off the slate and the season, they found, would end at Norwich.
That trip would end in a victory.
“Nobody really knew how to handle it,” Cesari said. “The clock ran out and it was really quiet. Like, ‘we just won, shouldn’t we be going nuts right now?’ It was only until after that it started sinking in. It was amazing, absolutely amazing. It’s really easy to follow success. That’s why there are bandwagon fans; it’s really easy to cheer for people who are doing well. But when you stick around with a losing program, it’s a display of character.”
Ithaca High School has a new story to write now. It has players to sell on the program, a fresh streak to build on. Cesari has his future ahead of him. A part-time lab assistant at Cornell University, he said he wants to go into biology next year, and has applied to schools like Pittsburgh, Stony Brook and the University of New Hampshire. He’s had some calls from some Division III schools, the usual suspects like Alfred University and Saint John Fisher in the mix with some attention from Saint Lawrence, Brockport and Monmouth University thrown in as well. Cesari has his life waiting to be realized. The future of Ithaca High School football is at the same stage as well. Ultimately, where it goes next is up to its players.
“We have kids in our school that are 6-4, 250 pounds that won’t go out for the team because they don’t see it as a priority,” Cesari said. “At other schools, if you’re a good athlete with good size, you’re going out for football. It’s not even a question. Here, with Ithaca being Ithaca, that’s not how it works. That’s an obstacle the program has to overcome.”
Nick Reynolds covers high school sports for The Ithaca Journal. Follow him on Twitter @IJCityWatch.