FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Cumberland Dukes look to rebuild

Published 4:46 pm Saturday, August 26, 2023

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The scores last year didn’t tell the full story for Cumberland Dukes football. Yes, they went 0-10, but that record came after a situation where new coach Josh Fleenor wasn’t hired until mid-July, then tasked with putting together a last-minute staff. With less than a month between hiring a staff and playing the first game, that didn’t leave much time to actually install his system. But with that in mind, Fleenor mapped out other goals for the season.

“My goal last year was building a strong foundation, getting these kids together as a team,” Fleenor said. “I wanted to create an experience on Friday nights to help these kids fall in love with this game and understand it. We knew it would be a rough road, but we got through it together as a team and as a family.”

While he acknowledges the final scores weren’t great, Fleenor said he was proud of the team’s effort.

“Even though the scoreboard wasn’t what we wanted it to be, we never quit,” Fleenor said. “We never gave up. There were a lot of mistakes, but we could also find a lot of things we could build on.”

And that’s where the Dukes stand as we enter the 2023 season. The coach and players want to define what Cumberland football is. They want to remove 2022 from everyone’s mind and give them new games and challenges to focus on.

“We got a good group of kids. We’re not the biggest (and) we’re not gonna be stacked four or five rows deep like some teams,” Fleenor said. “We gonna come out and fight. We’re gonna play with some heart. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to establish a long-standing program.”

What is Cumberland Dukes football?

That’s the question some other teams and communities are asking. What will Cumberland football look like? When asked to define it, Fleenor paused to think.

“It’s about family, team and heart,” Fleenor said. “Our kids work hard. They were in the gym after the end of last season, working to get better. They took part in open gym and conditional weight training. Our actions now take the first step to lay the foundation of the program. It’s heart-filled, prideful football.”

Part of that buy-in from the players comes from knowing and trusting the coach. Some of these seniors were 10th graders not too long ago, competing on a team that Fleenor took to the James River District Championship. That group came within two points of tying for the title and they want to build something similar on the varsity side.

“That leadership at the top is going to be a major factor to our continuing success,” Fleenor said. “And our young guys have bought in. I really like what I see coming up the line. I think you’re going to see Cumberland football improve.”

Seeing improvement

The wins will come, Fleenor says. But first, you have to lay a foundation. You have to teach fundamentals, you have to help players understand the game and their roles.

“That’s what it’s gonna take for us to establish a long-standing program at Cumberland,” Fleenor said. “We welded ourselves together as a team through those challenges we had. The wins will come if you teach the right attitude.”

And it looks like some of that is already happening. The team switched offensive coordinators after the season, also making some changes to the overall scheme. It’s simpler, Fleenor said. Then they went and held a scrimmage with Charles City and Brunswick County Thursday night. A team that only scored 37 points total in 2022, while giving up 471, did a lot better one year in.

On Thursday, they only gave up three touchdowns all night, while scoring six.

“From what I saw last night, we’re in a better place than I even thought we were,” Fleenor said. “I’m really excited about the coming season. We’ve got a good energy on this team.”

Now Fleenor acknowledges that the Cumberland Dukes won’t be the biggest football players and they won’t be the largest team.

“We’re not gonna be stacked four or five rows deep like some teams,” Fleenor said. “We’re gonna come out and fight. We’re gonna play with some heart. I think over time, you’ll see a different Cumberland football program that will earn people’s respect. We want their respect and we’re gonna get it.”

To read the entire 2023 High School Football Preview click here.