HARROGATE, Tenn. — Optimism is high around the Cumberland Gap football team as they prepare for the upcoming season. The Panthers appear primed for a turn-around after going 2-8 and 3-7 while dealing with rash of injuries and a small number of seniors the past two season.
“All last year — even though we went 3-7 and even though we struggled with leadership and injuries and all those things — what impressed me about the kids is that when they could have given up they kept coming back and giving an effort. I think each week we got a little bit better and we were rewarded with a win against Grainger County (in the season finale),” said CGHS coach Neal Pucciarelli. “I think that win has propelled the kids to work harder and start to believe in themselves. Everything we’ve done since coming off the dead period has got them feeling like they’re coming together as a group and feeling like they can have a really good football team.”
Numbers are up as the team had 42 players in uniform for their team photos on Wednesday and Pucciarelli is happy to see that a large percentage of those players are juniors and seniors for a change.
“We’re starting to develop some competition so when we scrimmage we can go out and put a one defense against a one offense and feel like we’re getting decent work against each other,” he said. “We have a good group of seniors, a large group of seniors and a large group of juniors and that explains the competition.”
The coach added that several players have shown a great deal of improvement from last year, including some underclassmen.
“Without naming names, because there are so many, we’ve had lots of kids to step up and just come out nowhere to surprise the whiz out of us. They’ve gotten faster, they’ve gotten stronger, they’re showing a knack for getting open, they’re getting a block, learning their steps, all the little things that make you good football team,” Pucciarelli said.
The players are also buying in and have high hopes for the season.
“I’m really excited about my senior year, everybody’s working hard and we should be pretty good,” said quarterback Blake Franklin.
Franklin has shown a knack for moving the chains as a duel threat QB ever since he took over due to injury late in his freshman season. But the injury bug has bitten him in each of the last two seasons.
“I’m going to try to stay healthy this year for sure — it’s really just been random things (The team was 2-0 last year when he broke his thumb making a tackle),” he said.
Franklin added that this year’s Panther team is a tight-knit group and that should translate to success on the field.
“Everybody gets along, everybody’s friends, we’re always hanging out and it’s great.”
Senior nose guard and left guard Brad Fleeman feels strongly that his unit will be able to provide some protection for Franklin.
“The line is amazing this year. It’s the best we’ve had in a long time so we’ve got high expectations,” he said. “We’re coming together pretty good and I think we’ve got a chance to overpower some of the teams in our district this season.”
Senior receiver Jordan Teague, who has also seen some time at running back, says the goal for this year is simply to improve. He also said he’d like to have a win against a certain in county rival.
“We want to win more games than we did last year, obviously. We’ve got good numbers and hopefully we can keep up with Greenevilles in the district,” he said. “We want to beat Claiborne for sure. It’s my senior year and we’ve been down to them every year since I got here, that’s our biggest game and we want to win.”
Receiver Dylan Gambrel is also hoping for a breakout in 2012.
“We just want to get back to Panther football — winning games, competing and going to the playoffs,” he said.
The team is currently in the middle of two-a-day practices and coach Pucciarelli said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how the players have responded to a new schedule this year that has them at the facility from 8:15 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.
“I was skeptical at first whether the kids would struggle with that as far as concentration and being disciplined enough to sit down, cool off, eat and come back and practice, but it’s been great,” he said. “So far we’ve had a great week of two-a-days with two days to go.”
Cumberland Gap will host Cosby in a scrimmage Friday at 6 p.m. They open the season Aug. 17 at Wartburg Central.
“We still have to grow each week in terms of leadership, but we have enough athletes to be successful here,” Pucciarelli added. “If we can continue to grow and experience a little bit of success week in and week out this team can have a really good season.”