HARROGATE, Tenn. — Coming off a tough loss to stomach against rival Claiborne, the Cumberland Gap Panthers still have a lot to play for as they prepare to host Scott County Friday night.
“They’ve done a good job of trying to get past it. We’ve had good practices and we have to get ready for Scott County,” said coach Neal Pucciarelli. “What we’re telling them is: We still have a great chance to finish second in the conference and possibly host a playoff game. The kids have been practicing football, I’ve been taking care of loose ends from Friday night.”
The loose ends from last week’s 16-11 upset loss at Claiborne include sending a game tape to the supervisor of officials and attempting to get the questionable ejection of senior running back Wesley Nance overturned. Nance was ejected for shoving a Claiborne player who was holding his jersey at the end of a play. It was one of eight penalties against the Panthers in the first half as the Bulldogs built a 16-0 lead.
Cumberland Gap got a 40-yard touchdown pass from Blake Franklin to Chase Smith, made the two-point conversion and later got a field goal from Devon Helton to cut the deficit to five points. The Panthers also appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute, but that was called back due to another penalty as the Bulldogs held on.
“We’ve been appealing a suspension and talking to the head of officials in Knoxville. We certainly can’t appeal (the outcome of the game) but we’re obviously disappointed in the officiating. It was 120 to 42 (in penalty yards), at one point they called four or five penalties in a row. I know you’re supposed to say that’s not why you lost a game, but we score the winning touchdown and that gets called back, too,” Pucciarelli said. “Is it sour grapes? Yeah… I congratulate Claiborne for winning the game, but I also recognize the fact that there was a lot of circumstances we had no control of.”
The coach added that he was pleased with how his players handled themselves last Friday.
“I have to say the kids have done great and I couldn’t have been prouder of how they responded throughout the course of the ball game. I thought we kept our composure, we continued to play hard and we did everything we possibly could to stay in the game under very, very difficult circumstances.”
Nance’s ejection has been upheld so he’ll also have to sit out this week’s game at the Panthers (5-3) step out of district play to host the 4-A Scott Highlanders (0-8).
It’s one more distraction Cumberland Gap will have to put behind them as they get ready for a Highlander team that is more than capable of posing problems.
“They’re a good football team. Their record isn’t indicative of how good they are. They’re probably as big as any team we’ve played and man for man they’re a lot bigger than us. They’ve got a huge offensive line and a really good running quarterback they use in the zone read,” Pucciarelli said. “They’re 0-8, but they’ve played CAK, Alcoa, Loundon, a who’s who of good teams.
“I think they’re going to be like we were last year, they’ll come in and battle and try to come up with the win. This time of year it doesn’t matter what your record is, if you’ve got any character as a football player — which those kids do — you’re going to have to play hard to try and beat them.”
With Nance out, the Panthers may have to rely even more on Franklin to move the ball both through the air and on the ground. Pucciarelli also said he has confidence in the rest of his backs.
“Brandon Bailey, Jordan Teague and Jeremiah Lorens will all rotate at the running back position and I think they’ll do a good job. We may have to throw it a little bit more, but I think Dylan Gambrel, Chase Smith and Jonathan Estes will be able to step up and help us. Rusty (Provins)has been playing well at tight end,” he said. “Either way we’ll have to mix it up. Our plan is to run it like we’ve been doing and have balance on offense.”
Friday’s game is set to kick off at 7:30 p.m.