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Dukes win state-level honor

Cumberland High School’s varsity football team had a difficult season in terms of wins and losses, going 1-9, but it thrived in terms of character, and its sportsmanship will now be known throughout the state.

The Chuck Grasser Sportsmanship Award is handed out in each of the six Virginia High School League (VHSL) classifications — Groups 1A through 6A — and is voted on by referees who worked the games during the football season. The Dukes were voted as the honoree for 1A.

“It means a great deal,” Cumberland Principal Jeff Scales said. In football, “with the temperaments and the actions that can be right heated, it’s wonderful to see that our students are following the lead of their coaches and the expectations of the administration in the athletic department.”

Cumberland Athletics Director Alfonso Bell said this is the football program’s first time receiving the award.

“We always encourage our athletes and students to be respectful at all times, during wins and losses,” Bell said. “We would love to have a championship trophy, but we still have work to do. We will be proud of this sportsmanship award — it is part of our athletic growth as a program.”

Ed Knapp, Cumberland’s head football coach, became well aware over the course of the season that his team commanded the respect of the referees.

“It was remarkable this year,” he said. “After games, officials would generally come up to me and say, ‘I just want to let you know how well your team behaves on the field,’ as far as the way we interact with both the other team and the officials and how organized and how good we are on the sidelines, not just the players but the staff in interacting with the officials.”

Knapp said it is easy to get discouraged when coming off a 1-9 year, but it is nice to have a third party come in and say it respects the way you play the game, which is an important part of what he and his staff are trying to teach their players in addition to helping them find ways to win.

“You’re trying to build young men into stronger young men through the activity of football,” he said. “One of the things that we really started preaching when I came here to Cumberland was accountability. You have to be accountable for your own actions, you have to be accountable to the team, you have to be accountable to yourself.”

Knapp knows that when he tells his players to never embarrass themselves, their family or the program, the process starts with him and his staff.

“We’re pretty intense guys — I know that I am,” he said. “I can be pretty fiery, but you won’t see us lose control on the sidelines. As a football coach, you have to model the behavior you want to see. So, if I want my team to be under control and to be focused, then I have to be under control and focused.”

He said he is proud of his players for getting better at having a controlled fury on the field and not just a mania.

Earlier this year, Cumberland was named co-recipient of the 2015-16 James River District Sportsmanship Cup for its character demonstrated across all sports. The Grasser award is the latest evidence that the school is doing something right in its culture-building.

“We still want to win all the games and play hard, but it is an indication that we’re headed in the right direction and doing it the right way,” Knapp said.

Cumberland will be presented with the trophy during the All-Metro banquet Jan. 26 at the Touchdown Club of Richmond.

Bell, Knapp and Assistant Athletics Director Travis Gilliam will be going, accompanied by three football players.

“They’re the guys who really won us the award,” Knapp said of the players, “so it’ll be a really good event for our kids to see.”