By Will LeBlond
This past fall, the Ithaca College Football team knocked off rival SUNY Cortland to claim the famed Cortaca Jug, but now a pair of local high school hockey teams are trying to get in on the action.
The Ithaca and Cortland-Homer Boys Hockey teams faced off on Monday, Jan. 22 in the first ever “Cortaca Cup” game.
“We’ve had three really good games against each other the past three years,” said Ithaca head coach Paul Zarach on the rivalry against the Golden Eagles. “We were talking about how to make it a little bit more fun. The colleges have their rivalry and they’re the closest team we play and we wanted to make it fun for the kids and why not.”
In the previous three meetings between the teams, the home team had won each game and each contest was decided by just one goal with Ithaca claiming two of the previous three heading into the Monday night affair. In this year’s edition of the rivalry, with a trophy on the line for the first time, the Little Red overcame the odds on the road at the J.M. McDonald Sports Complex in Cortland.
With a 5-7 record entering the contest, Ithaca had been struggling to score goals in recent weeks, while the 11-2, and sixth-state ranked Golden Eagles had won their previous seven games. As the underdog, it didn’t take the Little Red long to prove that they’re for real.
Just 45 seconds into the game’s opening period, Ithaca forward Xander DiNapoli deflected a shot from defenseman Dennis Kang into the back of the net that stunned the hometown crowd and gave IHS a quick boost.
“It fired us up,” said DiNapoli on the early goal. “I think that was a statement to say if we can put one in that quickly, we can put in many.”
That 1-0 score remained through the first period, but Cortland-Homer didn’t have much time to respond in the second period, as they drew level, but the Ithaca response was the story of the game.
Michael Sornberger had a sensational individual effort to score his team-leading 11th goal of the season, and then DiNapoli outworked the opposing defense to post his second of the night late in the frame to give Ithaca a 3-1 lead heading into the third period.
“We went out there and worked as a team,” said DiNapoli. “We hammered those goals home when we needed them the most.”
The Golden Eagles were able to narrow their deficit to one in the third when they converted on a power play, but the stout Ithaca defense and freshman goalie William Gephart cleaned up the rest. The focus for Zarach’s team in recent weeks has been their attention to detail defensively and it paid off in Cortland.
“The West Genny game was a bit of a turning point for us in terms of guys understanding the effort we need to have for the whole game,” said Zarach. “The guys are doing a really good job of blocking shots.”
Of the 22 shots that got through the Ithaca defense and went on Gephart, he turned aside 20 to help the Little Red secure the 3-2 win and set off a celebration on the ice.
“It means a lot to be the first team to win it,” said Gephart. “Now we can always have those bragging rights of saying that we won it first.”
Ithaca needs to make room for the big trophy denoting the first Cortaca Cup Championship, but the Little Red are looking for more than just a regular season title this winter. With the only team playing out of Section IV, the Little Red will automatically play in a New York State Tournament Regional game, which is set for March 3. From here on out, there’s one big focus for Ithaca with the postseason on the horizon.
“We have to keep finishing,” said DiNapoli on the offense. “That’s been the biggest thing that’s been affecting us with wins. If we keep finishing, we’ll keep on winning games.”
Ithaca will be back home at Cass Park on Jan. 30 to take on Christian Brothers Academy and then they’ll face McQuaid on Feb. 3 at Cass as well.