ALBANY — Joe Casale’s memories of playing in the Carrier Dome are of nothing but triumph.
Twice during his days at Troy High School, the UAlbany redshirt sophomore linebacker took the field inside the Dome. Both times, he and the Flying Horses left as NYSPHSAA Class AA football state champions.
“A lot of it was just seeing hard work pay off,” Casale said Thursday. “It’s something any team can achieve, it’s just coming to practice every day and working.”
That’s the formula Casale is hoping will pay off for his current team on Saturday when UAlbany makes its maiden trip to the Carrier Dome for a noon kickoff against Syracuse.
At Troy, Casale was an integral part of back-to-back state title teams in 2016 and 2017, compiling a team-high 12 tackles as a defensive back in the Flying Horses’ 2016 championship game win over Victor, then following that up a year later when, having become the team’s starting quarterback as a senior, he concluded his high school career by passing for 239 yards and a pair of touchdowns to defeat Lancaster.
Casale is one of a handful of Great Danes (0-1 CAA, 0-2 overall) who have familiarity with playing at the Carrier Dome from their high school days. In fact, UAlbany’s linebacker corps is flush with players who’ve taken to the turf at Ernie Davis Legends Field before.
Like Casale, redshirt junior Damon Burton also won a pair of Class AA state titles at the Dome when he played for Rochester’s Aquinas Institute in 2013 and 2015. Redshirt junior Danny Damico never made it to the state finals while playing for Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, but he’s got the most Carrier Dome experience of any Great Dane with six prior games at the facility — three season kickoff games and three Section III championship appearances.
“It’s awesome. It’s been a while since I played in the Dome,” said Damico, a native of Manlius in the Syracuse suburbs. “Whenever I’m home, I work out in some of the facilities. I went to high school, like, four minutes away.”
For all of the Great Danes with experience playing in the Dome — that includes head coach Greg Gattuso, who visited the stadium in its early years during his time as a defensive lineman at Penn State in the early 1980s — they’ll be greeted with something a bit unfamiliar.
The Carrier Dome underwent a massive renovation prior to the 2020 football season, with the facility getting a brand-new roof. The refurbishment also put an end to one of the great running jokes in college sports, with air conditioning finally installed in a building that had gone its first 40 years without it — despite its naming rights being held by an air conditioning company.
“You always thought in high school, ‘How is this so hot? They’re an air conditioning company,’” Burton said.
The Great Danes are receiving a $360,000 guarantee for the trip to Syracuse, an official from the UAlbany athletic department confirmed Friday. UAlbany also received a $250,000 guarantee two weeks ago for its season-opening game at North Dakota State’s Fargodome.
Having already played inside a dome — albeit one less than half the size — Gattuso doesn’t expect his team to be intimidated by its surroundings.
“I’ve never felt the impact of any away field, as a coach or as a player,” he said. “How it affects individual kids, I don’t know. It’s just not a sport [like baseball] where the right field wall is different and a ball off it hits funny, or basketball where the background’s different and the shooting is different. This [field] never changes.”
“At the end of the day,” Casale said, “it’s football, regardless of where you’re playing it.”
But, for Casale and his teammates who have been on that field before, it’s hard not to conjure certain memories.
For Burton, it’s the 2015 Class AA state title game against Saratoga Springs, where he racked up nine tackles and forced a fumble that teammate Earnest Edwards returned for a touchdown.
“It was crazy,” Burton said. “All my family came. It’s close to home, so I’ve got a lot of people coming to see me play.”
Saturday’s game is also likely to see Casale get his most significant playing time of the season. Described by Gattuso as “the next guy in” from UAlbany’s deep linebacker group, Casale is likely to see more significant action as UAlbany rotates its front seven to stay fresh against a Syracuse (1-1 overall) team that prefers to operate its offense at warp speed, running 80 or more plays in a game.
“Obviously, they play a fast tempo,” Casale said. “We’ve been practicing all week to stay up with that. It’s going to come down to being able to stay focused while they’re going fast.”