HARROGATE, Tenn. —The last two unbeaten teams in Blue Ridge Athletic Conference play square off tonight as the Cumberland Gap Panthers travel to Greeneville to take on the Greene Devils.
Greeneville comes in at 3-3 overall and 2-0 in conference games. Don’t let the record fool you, the two-time defending Class 4A state champ’s losses have come against big schools Science Hill and Morristown West and to perennial 3A power Alcoa. In district action the Devils have rolled to 72-7 and 55-0 wins at South Greene and West Greene, respectively.
“They’ve got a very good football team and there’s no doubt that we’re the underdog,” said Panther coach Neal Pucciarelli. “But we’ve had a good week of practice. The kids are excited to be playing them. And this is the first time since we’ve been in the same conference that we feel like we can at least go out and compete with Greeneville.”
Cumberland Gap is 5-1 and 3-0 in district play. Tonight’s game will be the Panthers’ biggest challenge of the season as they’ve lost to Greeneville 70-0 and 62-0 the last two years.
Pucciarelli says his team has the right attitude and mindset going into the game. They have some hope because this will be the best Panther team Greeneville has faced.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors and juniors and (quarterback) Blake Franklin is legitimately healthy. Two years ago he didn’t play at all against them and last year he was just coming back and he rotated in and out,” Pucciarelli said. “They lost 16 seniors from last year, including several Division I athletes. They’re not as big up front but they’ve still got quite a bit of speed. They’re not quite as talented as they have been. Have we closed the gap? We’ll just have to see.”
Cumberland Gap’s game plan is not much different from any team going for an upset.
“As far as x’s and o’s, we’ve got to take care of the football. We’ve got to get first downs and try to keep their offense off the field as much as we can and we have to try and not give up the big plays,” Pucciarelli said. “Getting off to a good start is going to be crucial. If we can do those things, then we’ll just have to see what happens.”
One other key that Pucciarelli says give his team some hope is their improvement on special teams.
“Devon Helton has just done a super job for us in the kicking game. I can’t say enough about how consistent he’s been punting the ball and placing kickoffs where we ask him to. That’s made us a better team,” the coach said. “Our coverage teams are going to have to play well for us to have a chance.”
Tonight’s game kicks off at 8 p.m. in Greeneville.