HARROGATE, Tenn. — The Cumberland Gap Panthers make the familiar trip down 25E tonight to face the Claiborne Bulldogs. It’s the biggest rivalry for both schools and both will be looking to get off to a 1-0 start in District 2-AA.
The Claiborne-CGHS rivalry has been a hotly-contested one over the years with most games being a lot closer than they appear to be on paper. The Bulldogs have been coming out on top recently and hold a five-game winning streak in the series, the longest the rivalry has seen even dating back to the Powell Valley vs. Claiborne County days.
Panther coach Corey Russell says that while he and his team would like nothing better than to beat the Bulldogs and end that streak, it’s important for them to treat it like any other game.
“It’s a rivalry. It’s the school that’s right next door to us and it always has been a rivalry. The thing that we’ve told the kids is that it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we play the same way and our mentality should be the same,” he said. “This is our rival and it’s a big game for us, but it doesn’t change anything in how we prepare. If we go out and execute the game plan and do our jobs we’ll be okay.”
Cumberland Gap turnovers have played a big role in Claiborne winning the last two in the series: 16-11 in 2012 and 29-21 last season. So limiting turnovers is obviously a big key for the Panthers.
Another key is containing Bulldog quarterback Dalton Lee.
“He’s their guy and he’s a good ball player. He runs the ball hard and throws it pretty well. He’s kind of the guy that makes them go,” Russell said. “We’ll have to do a good job of wrapping him up and bringing him down when we get the chance. He’s a physical ball carrier even though he plays quarterback, he lowers his shoulders and runs like a running back.”
Claiborne (0-1) returns most of their skill position players from last season, but lost some good ones along both lines. They’ll have to perform better than they did in a season-opening 31-0 loss to North Laurel. The Bulldogs had an open date last week to work things out and prepare for the Panthers.
Russell said his team has to be ready to face multiple looks when they’re on defense.
“They’ll go to some shotgun and four wides and you always have to be ready for them to run power right at you,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter what they do, it’s not like they’re going to come out in something we haven’t seen or in some offense that can’t be stopped. It’s just a matter of our guys doing what they’re supposed to and playing mistake-free football.”
The Panthers (1-1) turned a bit of a corner during last week’s come from behind 18-14 win at North Greene. The tackling improved dramatically in the second half as they kept the Huskies off the scoreboard. On offense Ryker Gent, who will again be filling in for injured tailback Brandon Bailey, starting finding room to run and sophomore quarterback Ethan Ellison hooked up with Kyle Evans for several big plays in the passing game.
“That goes back to not doing anything special, those guys are just doing their jobs. Ethan made some good reads last week against North Greene and made some good throws. It was nothing spectacular, just solid football,” Russell said. “Ryker has done a great job playing both ways for us so far and being our workhorse. He’s got a great attitude and a great work ethic, if he keeps it up we’ll be just fine.”
It was also good for a Cumberland Gap team to face short on experience to face a road environment last week. But it’s hard to prepare for the intensity and atmosphere that comes along with a big rivalry game on the road.
“We’ve told our guys before that they’re not young anymore. I don’t care if your a sophomore, a freshman or a senior, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all counting on each other and we’re all out practicing doing the things we should,” Russell said. “We’ve got a lot of guys with some inexperience and even some older guys that haven’t played much football. (But) we don’t talk about having a lack of experience or anything like that, it’s just a matter of being focused and doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Tonight’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in New Tazewell.