HARROGATE, Tenn. — Cumberland Gap High School is celebrating their tenth year in 2012 and for most of that short history the football program has been a successful one. The Panthers made the playoffs in seven of their first eight seasons, but injuries and a lack of depth have hurt the last two years as CGHS put together 2-8 and 3-7 records.
Coach Neal Pucciarelli is pleased with the depth the team is developing at just about every position and the Panthers could be poised to make a serious run at their first-ever Blue Ridge Athletic Conference championship.
“We have nine seniors, which is actually less than we had last year, but they all start either on offense or defense. Our depth is coming from a big junior class with 16 players,” the coach said. “We’ve got pretty good depth at every offensive position except quarterback and we’re getting there — Jonathan Lorens has done a pretty good job. Defensively we’re about two-deep at every position.”
After posting back-to-back losing records, it could be possible that the Panthers could sneak up on the competition this year.
“You’d like to think so, but in some of the preseason things they’re picking us to finish second,” Pucciarelli said. “I think the coaches maybe know that we’ve got a lot of kids coming back and we might be pretty dangerous. From a mental aspect with the players, they might think: ‘We’ve got Cumberland Gap this week, we killed them last year.’ Maybe that could be an advantage.
“If you talk to our kids right now, they want to take all the advantages and disadvantages out and just go and play. They’re excited about proving themselves.”
Coming off a state championship season Greeneville remains the favorites to win the conference, but Pucciarelli says the league should be more competitive from top to bottom this year.
“Greeneville lost 16 seniors and that’s hard to replace whether you’re Cumberland Gap or you’re Greeneville. Hopefully we can close the gap some and at least it won’t be blowout ballgames when Greeneville goes around the conference,” he said. “I’d have to say that they’re still the team to beat, but this will probably the most competitive year the conference has ever seen. Grainger County has a real good team, West Greene is always good, Chuckey-Doak had a good season last year. Even Claiborne has a big, huge football team. They’re probably the biggest team in the conference, not in numbers, but in individual size of their kids. I think every week is going to be a dogfight.”
One positive to battling through various injuries last year is that a lot of players come into 2012 with varsity experience.
It starts in the offensive backfield where senior quarterback Blake Franklin is back for his third year as the starter in the Panthers’ spread. Despite missing three games and parts of two others Franklin led the Cumberland Gap in passing and rushing last year. He completed 61 of 119 passes for 800 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions and added 475 yards and four TDs on the ground.
Another senior who was limited to seven games due to injuries is running back Wesley Nance. Nance ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns and will look to build on that in 2012. Backup Jeremiah Lorens saw plenty of action last season and will spell Nance on occasion.
There is quite a bit of depth in the Panther receiving corps with Dylan Gambrel, senior Jonathan Estes, Chase Smith and senior Jordan Teague filling out the starting spots in the spread. Joe Gidens, Sterling Provins, Brandon Bailey and Dakota Brock make up the second receiving unit. While one go-to receiver has yet to emerge, several have shown the ability to get open and make plays in the open field.
Senior Jacob Lorens (5-10,220) is the starting center with senior returning starters Miguel Caffey (6-0,215) at right tackle and Brad Fleeman (6-2,270) at left guard. Rounding out the line are junior Cody Cornelius (6-6,240) at left tackle and sophomore Preston Provins (6-4,250) at right guard.
The Panthers employ a 4-3 base defense with the outside linebackers and safeties also able to creep up and bring more pressure along the line of scrimmage when needed.
Franklin and Nance are the starting safeties with Gambrel and Brock at the corner positions. Up front junior Michael Palazzolo (5-10,259) plays on the nose with Caffey starting at tackle. A pair of 6-4 juniors in Rusty Provins and Jordan Russell bring size and athleticism to the end positions.
Junior middle linebacker Jeremiah Lorens is a tackling machine that roams sideline to sideline with senior Vincent Digiulian and sophomore Brandon Bailey manning the outside linebacker spots.
The kicking game should be stronger that it’s been in some time with sophomore Devon Helton now handling both the place-kicking and punting duties.
So, what will it take for the Panthers to go from tied for sixth in the league to making a run at the top spot? Pucciarelli said it comes down to the basics.
“Last year were were minus six in turnovers and that’s what we’ve been preaching. In the preseason we’re plus four, so if we can maintain that turnover rate and control the line of scrimmage a little bit better than we did last year we can win a lot of football games,” he said. “Now, we have to get better on defense and play more consistently on that side of the ball. We also need some major improvements in our coverages on the kicking game as well as in the return game. But I think our summer has gone really well and we are making strides to show that improvement defensively and offensively.”
Cumberland Gap opens the season Friday at Wartburg Central.
“It’s two very similar football teams, we both have a lot of kids coming back from last year. Our kids may say: ‘We blew Wartburg out last year.’ But when you look at the video tape it was more the turnovers Wartburg had and the fumbles not how well we executed,” said Pucciarelli. “They’ve got a huge offensive line with two 300-pounders and most of their receivers are back. They’ve got a new coach, Tony Barnard, and they’ve put more emphasis on the running game. They’re still in that spread like we are, but they’re running more on first and second down. They’re trying to be a more physical team, but they still have the capability to throw it.
“You’re always leery when your first game is on the road, but I think it’s going to be an exciting game.”
The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m.