Earlier this year, at the end of spring practice, Zac Boyes got the news he had been eagerly awaiting. Cortland State head football coach Curt Fitzpatrick stood in front of his players and announced that Boyes would be one of his captains.

Later, he took Zac aside and said, This is your team now. We’re going to give you a shot. Go out and take advantage of it.

Boyes, a Kenmore West graduate, was a mere sophomore. He had spent the previous season as the backup quarterback to Brees Segala. He would be leading a Red Dragons team that had gone 11-1 in 2021, a big challenge for a first-time starter.

“I wasn’t necessarily shocked,” said Boyes. “I was honored. That’s all you can ask for as a quarterback, going out there and taking advantage of an opportunity. That’s what we’ve done so far this year, and we’ve got a long way to go.”

Boyes, the son of Buffalo State coaching legend Jerry Boyes, made the most of his chance and then some. He had one of the best seasons of any quarterback in Division III, and statistically one of the finest in program history for the unbeaten, 9-0 Red Dragons.

Cortland is averaging 50.1 points a game, fourth out of 242 teams in Division III. Boyes has completed 131 of 185 passes for 2,391 yards, with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. Boyes leads the nation in yards per pass completion (18.25) and attempt (12.92). His 70.8 completion percentage is ninth.

“I’m an aggressive player,” said Boyes, who said much of the credit goes to his offensive line and a dazzling array of playmakers. “I like to throw the ball deep and I like to be aggressive. But you’ve got to know when to do that and when not to, and I think that was a big development for me last year.

“Coach Fitzpatrick let me play to my strengths this year, from the jump,” he said. “We did a lot of things that I’m good at and very confident in. It’s been a lot of fun.”

‘Biggest little game’

The fun is only beginning. On Saturday at noon at Yankee Stadium, Cortland State takes on fellow unbeaten Ithaca College in a small college football rivalry that dates to 1930 and was christened in a 1991 Sports Illustrated preview as “the biggest little game in the nation” (the game airs on the YES Network).

Since 1959, Cortland and Ithaca, located some 24 miles apart in the Finger Lakes region, have played for the Cortaca Jug (Cortaca being a blend of the two schools’ names). The jug tradition began in 1959, when two friends who were captains of the respective teams wanted to create a trophy for the winner.

Boyes has 24 passing touchdowns this year against six interceptions. (Courtesy of Cortland Athletics/Darl Zehr Photography)

They went to a yard sale and bought a $2 ceramic milk jug from a farmer in Homer. Cortland won the first Cortaca Jug, 13-7. The score and winner went on the jug every year, until they needed a second jug in 1985. A third jug was required in 2016.

“It’s really cool, a tradition a lot of people embrace and love,” Zac said. “Even when I’m in Buffalo, if you wear a Cortland football shirt, they say ‘Hey, when are you playing Ithaca?’ You don’t know how many people are tied to the game until you wear a Cortaca shirt of the week is coming.

That’s the goal of the team every year,” he said. “We talk about winning our league and winning the jugs.”

Of course, Zac has long been aware of the tradition. His father was an All-American quarterback at Ithaca College. Jerry was an Ithaca player and later an assistant for nine years under Jim Butterfield until becoming Buffalo State’s head coach in 1986.

Jerry’s first hire at Buff State was a star Cortland State offensive lineman named Terry Bitka. Bitka and Boyes stayed in Buffalo and each raised three kids. Boyes retired as AD in 2020. Bitka was a Bengals assistant for 36 years before retiring last summer.

Under Jerry Boyes, Buffalo State went from football irrelevance to national prominence, advancing to nine national Division III tournaments during his two stints as the head man.

Sons of coaches

Zac Boyes and Ryan Bitka grew up around that Buff State football program, little boys running around during games and practices and dreaming of one day playing for the Bengals. They became high school stars, Zac at Kenmore West and Ryan as an offensive lineman at Amherst.

“When you get older, you want to get away from home,” Zac said early this week. “That was my thing. I wanted to go and experience college, and I think he felt the same way.

“We had always looked at Cortland. Whenever we came here when we were younger, we walked into that huge stadium and we were like, wow, this is pretty cool.”

So, the coaches’ sons went together to Cortland State. Jerry feels it was a perfect fit for Zac, who plays for a head coach (Fitzpatrick) who played quarterbacks and coaches them. That doesn’t mean he didn’t needle his son about the Cortaca thing.

“Oh, yeah. He teased me,” Zac said. “We haven’t talked about it this week, but when I committed to Cortland, he said, ‘I never lost to them.’ He was always busting my chops. We beat them last year, so this is my chance to keep the streak going.”

Cortland lineman Ryan Bitka is an Amherst grad (Courtesy of Cortland Athletics/Darl Zehr Photography)

Beginning in his sophomore year of 1973, Jerry Boyes was a part of a record nine straight wins for Ithaca in the Cortaca Jug. Cortland won seven in a row from 2010-16. Then Ithaca won three in a row. There was no game in 2020 due to the pandemic.

This truly is a “big little game.” It’s a home game for Ithaca, which decided to play it at a larger venue. In 2019, the Cortaca Jug was played in front of an NCAA Division III record crowd of 45,161 at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Former Bills head coach Doug Marrone, who coached at Cortland State, once called the Cortaca Jug the biggest game he’d ever been involved in.

Now, it’s on to storied Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Jerry Boyes will make the drive to New York City with his wife, Sue, and the Bitkas, Terry and Heather. You could see it as a long football odyssey that stretches back to those difficult early seasons at Buff State.

“The word I use the most is ‘neat,’” said Jerry Boyes, who also uses ‘gosh’ and ‘golly’ on occasion. “Going down to Yankee Stadium. I’ve been down there once, but not at the new stadium.

“So, we’ll go down Friday and Sue talked about maybe even taking in a show.”

Boyes said he and Bitka often travel separately to games. Now that he’s a fan, Jerry has become a big fan of this tailgating thing and brings a lot of provisions and equipment on the road trips.

“Now, there’s really no tailgating down in New York City,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just a trip to the city and sit back and watch your sons do their thing.”

Power offense versus power defense

It shapes up as a classic class of football styles. Cortland averages 50 points a game and has speed to burn. Ithaca is ninth in Division III in scoring defense at 9.1 points a game and rates eighth in the country in defensive pass efficiency.

“Yeah, they’re solid,” said Ryan Bitka, the starting left guard. “They’re 9-0 and give up nine points a game. They’ll definitely give us a little test, but I feel like we’re up to the challenge.

“A big thing for us is mentally focus on your opponent for the week,” he said. “Just 1-0 each week. In and out.”

Boyes knew much was expected of him when he took over an 11-1 team with an explosive offense. Bitka agreed. He said the Red Dragons embraced the high standard and lived up to it.

“One, we have a bunch of good athletes,” Bitka said. “But two, we’re sticking together. It’s like a brotherhood for us.”

A big part of that brotherhood is the leadership of the big-armed sophomore quarterback. Bitka said the Red Dragons feed off Boyes, a modest person with a unflinching competitive soul.

“Oh, definitely,” Bitka said. “He’s accepted that role in a great way. All the guys listen to him, younger, older. He got that respect to him already as a sophomore. So, that’s good. He’s something else. I’ve never seen anyone else I played with be able to do what he can do back there. He’s different. He’s definitely different.”

Boyes said it’s a reflection of his upbringing, and of his dad, who was a consummate leader as a coach and AD at Buffalo State, treating everyone around the program as if they mattered and doing it the right way, even when the team was losing in the early days.

“A hundred percent,” Zac said. “He’s been huge for my development as a leader. I try to be my dad’s son out there. I think that’s the big thing as a leader is relating to your guys. You get the belief from them and when the guys are able to look at you and have a lot of confidence, it makes all of our lives easier.”

Cortland State has won 18 straight games in the regular season. They won the Empire 8 title and an automatic bid to the 32-team Division III NCAA Tournament. Ithaca has also qualified for the national tournament, so both will move on after Saturday.

The ultimate goal, of course, is the Stagg Bowl on Dec. 16 at Annapolis, where the two surviving teams will play for the national Division III title. Ithaca lost in the Stagg Bowl twice when Jerry Boyes was the quarterback in 1974-75.

“That was a long while ago,” he said with a laugh. “It’s such a road to get there now. When I played, they picked four teams, that was it. One team from the East, one from the West, South North.”

The playoffs are looming. But you never look past the Cortaca Jug. Zac said the coaches had the jugs, all three of them, out at practice during the week. He’s excited to play in Yankee Stadium, where he visited over the summer to tape some promotional spots for the game.

“You really can’t put it into words,” he said. “I was a huge Yankee fan growing up. Derek Jeter was my guy. I wore number 2 all my baseball career for him.

“Cortaca speaks for itself. It’s two nationally ranked teams (Cortland is 11, Ithaca 12 on d3football.com). It’s going to be a battle. I’m excited for the challenge and I’m going to soak in every moment. Cortaca, you’ve got to enjoy it and have fun.

“But we have a job to do, and that’s what we’re expecting to do.”

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.