On Oct. 1, 1999, the sprint football team beat Cornell, 12­– 7, in its home opener. The team then lost 72 of its next 73 games, including a losing streak that had stretched last month to 32 games.

This season’s third game (a 10–6 loss to Mansfield University) was close, however — closer than Princeton had gotten in years. And so it was with some degree of optimism that the team began practice on Wednesday, Oct. 20, two days before the season’s penultimate game against Navy.

“Just getting better — that’s what we try to do every week,” said Thomas Cocuzza, the team’s head coach, as his players counted out jumping jacks.

“One-two-three-T! ... ­One-two-three-I! ... One-two-three-G! ... One-two-three-E! ... ”

Team captain Robert Marsland ’11 saw bright spots in the team’s defense, and said the squad’s improvement this season “gives you enough hope that this will actually be the year, because we know it’s not the same as last year.”

Marsland, a lineman, had never played organized football before joining the team he now leads. But then, every player has been a walk-on since the athletic department stripped the program of its six admission slots in 1998.

The squad’s sparse roster — 32 players this year — means that most team members take on both offensive and defensive duties during games. This shortage affects practice time, too: During the Wednesday session, only a few players could run passing drills while the rest had to learn a new blitz scheme.

Many who do join the sprint team play for the love of a game that they would otherwise be too small to continue in college (sprint footballers must weigh less than 172 pounds).

“Football’s the best sport in America,” said linebacker Adrian Colarusso ’11, the team’s co-captain. “It’s ­hard-hitting; it’s a battle.”

Princeton’s battle against Navy two days later had an unhappy result as the Tigers lost, 67–0. But Marsland said that Princeton’s struggles have taught players the importance of believing every game can be a win. Indeed, by the end of the two-hour practice Wednesday, the team looked and talked like any other: tired, sweaty, and excited for the challenge ahead.

“You can’t go into a football game thinking you’re going to lose, or else you get walked over and everyone gets injured,” Marsland said. “It has to be a fight every time.”