HARROGATE, Tenn. —Cumberland Gap is on a roll, putting up over 50 points in back-to-back blowout wins to move to 3-0 for the first time since 2008. Tonight they face their biggest challenge of the season so far, hosting an Oneida team that has their sights set on a possible Class A state championship.
“Oneida is a big, physical football team. They return 16 seniors from last year when they went three rounds in the playoffs,” Panther coach Neal Pucciarelli said. “They have high expectations for, possibly, their first appearance in the state championship game in a while.”
The Indians (2-1) have a new coach this year in Tony Lambert and are a defensive-minded, ball-control team.
“Tony Lambert is a great defensive coach. Their kids are going to try to establish a running game, play great defense and they’ll be solid in the kicking game. They’re well-coached and just came off a big district win, they beat Wartburg 6-0 so it’s going to be an exciting game,” Pucciarelli said.
It’s a classic match-up of Oneida’s power versus the spread attack Cumberland Gap employs. The Panthers are led by senior quarterback Blake Franklin. Last week he completed all eight of his passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns in a 60-6 win over South Greene. The week before he ran for 154 yards and four touchdowns in a 54-13 win over Union County.
Senior running back Wesley Nance has also surpassed the 100 yard mark rushing in each of the last two weeks and Pucciarelli said the Panthers will have to balanced against the Indians.
“We’re going to try to control the tempo and create first downs. Defensively, we’re going to have to stop them and get them off the field,” he said. “Their game plan is going to be to keep their offense on the field as long as possible with long drives and keep Blake and our offense off the field.
“We’re also going to have to score some points. In theory, if we can get ahead it will get them out of their game plan a little bit. I think we’re going to have to score, move the football and make them play defense.”
Pucciarelli said tonight’s game is a big one for Cumberland Gap for a lot of reasons.
“It’s a huge game because it would be great for us to be 4-0 going into our next district game at West Greene. It would be great to beat Oneida — they’re a traditional powerhouse that we don’t beat very often. 2008 was the last time we’ve beaten them. It would also be great to beat a team, or compete with a team, that has high expectations of possibly playing for a state championship,” he said.
After going 2-8 in 2010 and 3-7 last year, the Panthers have returned to the winning ways they enjoyed for most of their nine-year history. Pucciarelli said a big reason for the turnaround is the mind-set his team has developed.
“One of the things we tried to establish early on was to develop self-confidence as a team. We realize that there are going to be some good things that happen and some bad things that are going to happen and we’ll have to work through the bad things not as individuals, but as a team,” he said. “I think the kids are starting to see the value in that. We haven’t faced a lot of adversity since the start of the season, but those things are going to come and you can’t respond to those things as individuals. You have to do that as a group and as a team. That’s what we’re focused toward.”
Tonight’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m.