The Claiborne Bulldogs played host to this year’s River Rivalry Game against the Cumberland Gap Panthers, Sept. 9. This game is anticipated by football fans each and every season but the Panthers fans wanted this victory to break a seven game losing streak to the Bulldogs. Those Panthers delighted their fans by playing lights out football during the opening half only to slip during the final two quarters.
After a week’s worth of pep rally action and other festivities it was finally game time. The temperature was near 90 degrees at kickoff and the sky was a beautiful blue when the ball was kicked into play by the Panthers. There was controversy on the opening play when it looked to many that Bryce Laws had touched the kickoff as it was angling out of bounds. The officials threw the yellow and penalized the Panthers for kicking the ball out of bounds. It was a difference of around 10 yards in favor of the home team. Every play is scrutinized by the standing room only crowds and every play matters.
The Bulldogs drive was effective with Isaiah Cloud, Jake Butler and Ty Stone leading the team. The Panthers defense was being led by Preston England, Bryce Rogers, Gage Ellison and Keaton Cornett but the Bulldogs kept moving the ball towards the Panther red zone. Lukas Neely was asked to go across the middle and showed zero fear as the ball was thrown. He went up for the ball, got hit by a Panther and ended upside down, nearly catching the pass from Stone. Hunter Rosenbalm kept the drive alive by coming back for the ball and making a much needed catch. Cloud moved the ball close to the one and a play later Stone appeared to score with one official indicating a TD. That official was overruled and the ball was placed at the one foot line. Stone blew through the line to score one play later and after the extra point the Bulldogs led 7-0.
England opened the drive up for his Panthers with Gage Ellison adding some yards to the rushing total. Jayson Upton began a half of excellent rushing with his first carry and the Panthers kept moving. England and Ellison helped complete the drive with a score at the 1:30 mark in the first. After the kick, the score was tied at seven.
The Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs on their next possession and Upton kept running wild. Jacob Bullins then hit Upton for their second score of the night. After Nick Neverstitch kicked the extra point the Panthers led 14-7.
Bryce Laws and Elijah Beason began a Bulldogs drive that featured a big run by Stone followed up by another run from Butler. Beason nearly scored the Bulldogs second TD of the game but was hit hard and dropped on the two yard line by the Panthers defense. Stone one play later, scored for the Bulldogs and after the Matt Walker kick was good the score was again tied at 14.
Upton resumed his great play by rolling off another good rushing attempt and had the Bulldogs defense in need for an adjustment. Jacob Bullins showed off his running ability after the Panthers had been hit with a huge penalty for an illegal shift. England, Ellison and Bullins kept the Panthers drive going until the Bulldogs rose up and made a stop that turned the ball over on downs.
At 1:17 remaining in the first half, the Bulldogs fumbled the ball giving the Panthers another great chance at a score. Matt Muggridge finally got his first touch with around 40 seconds left in the half. Upton finished off the drive with another Panther score coming out of a time out. The kick was good and the visitors led 21-14. The Bulldogs tried to score but failed to do so and the half ended with the Bulldogs reaching the nine yard line.
At the half Claiborne’s band performed and the Bulldogs students were acknowledged for winning the blood drive.
The Bulldogs needed to make some adjustments to get the lead back and stop the Panthers offense. Claiborne flipped a switch and came out of the locker room a different team especially defensively. The Bulldogs offense remained effective and scored again at the 9:52 mark in the third quarter; however, the point after attempt missed. The Bulldogs trailed by the score of 21-20. This score was set up by a bold on-sides kick call by Nathan Medlin in the locker room. It was executed to perfection and the ensuing drive allowed the Bulldogs to draw to within one point.
Following that, J.J. Helderman played well defensively along with Blake Heldrman, Cloud, Rosenbalm, Shane Smart and others. It became a team effort for the Bulldogs defensively. The quarter ended with the Bulldogs still down by a single point.
The fourth quarter was one that both teams played as hard as they could. The Panthers were battling cramps in key positions on offense at inopportune times that slowed down their progress while the Bulldogs just kept trying to find the end zone for the go ahead score. The Panthers defense and Bulldogs penalties baked them up to a third and goal situation from the 13 yard line. With 6:17 left in the game Stone got into the end zone with a Superman style dive over the goal line. The conversion failed but the Bulldogs once again held the lead at 26-21.
The visiting Panthers still had a chance to steal the win but a great defensive stand by the Bulldogs including a diving tackle by Matt Cupp. The Bulldogs pulled out the close 26-21 victory over a very improved Panthers team.
After the game, Panthers head coach DeLynn Cline said this, “I’m very proud of how the players played tonight. I told our team that this one was on me. We struggled with being tired and had some cramping issues at the worst times especially on our line tonight. It’s tough when your center is out and you mishandle a few snaps. There are limited possessions in a game like this and we didn’t make it count.”
The Bulldogs first year coach was impressed with his first rivalry game, “Everyone told me about this rivalry when I first moved over here and it lived up to it. Man, this is intense. Our team is slowly gelling together and they made some mistakes tonight but you can’t fault their effort.” Medlin added, “We called out the team at halftime to do their jobs and they responded. It’s always nice to get a win but for the streak to continue in this way; it’s just so exciting. I can’t wait until next year.”
The Panthers next travel to North Greene and Claiborne will hit the road and travel to Northview Academy.
Reach Allen Earl at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @pitchadude.